Learning not to linger on “what might have been” could act as a survival mechanism critical to happiness during old age,a new study has suggested.
According to the study,conducted by German scientists,if an individual has had a few regrets,it might be to best to let them go,as dwelling on what might have been makes for a miserable old age.
They say that regrets naturally decrease as we get older as we try to make the most of the time we have left and have fewer opportunities for second chances.
Younger people feel them far more acutely,as from an evolutionary perspective it is more important they learn not to repeat their mistakes.
However,old people whove learnt to repress them most effectively feel less stress and control other emotions more effectively.
For the study,the researchers used brain scans to test three groups youngsters with an average age of 25,a healthy older group and a depressed older group,both with an average age of 66.
All completed a computer game in which they had to open a series of boxes containing either money or a cartoon picture of a devil,which meant they lost all the money they had made and the exercise ended.
After each box,they could decide to bank the money or carry on in search of more – rather like the gameshow Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
When the game ended,they were shown how far they could have gone without losing it all.
They found that the younger people and the depressed older people who had all become depressed for the first time after the age of 55 – were more likely to take more risks in subsequent rounds.
But for the healthy older people,it did not change their behaviour significantly after each group of 20 people played around 80 rounds each.
In the brain scans,the activity in their ventral striatum,which is involved in the feeling of regret and the anterior cingulate cortex,where emotion is regulated,was similar in the young and depressed groups.
Meanwhile the healthy pensioners showed a distinctly different pattern of brain activity suggesting they were experiencing less regret and regulating their emotions more effectively.
Their heart rates were also slower and skin conductance tests showed less sweat production,indicating they were feeling less stress than the other two groups when confronted with a missed opportunity.
Stefanie Brassen,lead author of the study from Hamburg University Medical Centre,said people who are content in old age may use mental strategies which they may not even be aware of such as reassuring themselves that the results were only chance.
“As opportunities to undo regrettable situations decline with age,a reduced engagement into these situations represents a potentially protective strategy to maintain well-being in older age,” the researchers said.
“Yet little is known about the underlying neurobiological mechanisms supporting this claim. Our results suggest that disengagement from regret reflects a critical resilience factor in older age,” they added.
The study has been published in the journal Science.