For the young, regret over poor choices or missed opportunities can be a powerful carrot: It sparks reappraisal, accelerates learning and motivates change. In the old, regret appears to be no better than a stick -- a stern reminder of poor choices, lost powers and our short time remaining on earth. So what's the key to happy old age? Don't lunge after the carrot and you won't get hit by the stick.
A new study finds that how we deal with foregone options and lost opportunities makes a huge difference in whether we will grow into happy seniors or succumb to late-life depression. Reporting their findings in Science magazine, German researchers found that in repetitive games of chance, when healthy young adults pay a price for a wrong decision, they shift their strategies accordingly in the next round. If their caution lost them a big payoff, they'll be bolder in the next game; if they risked too much and came up empty-handed, they'll become more cautious the next time around.
Their response to regret is to act on it. And their physiological response to that regret was active too: Their heart rates increased and their skin became clammy.
Like miniskirts, muscle shirts and long hair, what worked well for young people did not work so well after age 50. Among older subjects (a total of 40 adults with average age of 65), the 20 who had experienced late-life depression (defined as a first episode of depression after age 55) were far more likely to respond to regret in the same way a healthy young person would: Their hearts would pound, their hands would get moist, and they would adjust their playing strategy in the next game.
The emotionally healthy older adults, however, were like Zen masters in the face of regret: Whether they went all in and lost or held and lost had no bearing on how they played the next game. Their palms stayed dry and their hearts did not race.
When researchers used fMRI scanners to peer into their subjects' brains as they played, they saw a similar pattern, in which the older depressed adults reacted to regret in the same way a healthy young person would. Among the mentally healthy young and the depressed old subjects, the brain's ventral striatum -- a region associated with valuation of costs and rewards -- became equally active under two conditions: when they gambled and lost everything, and when they learned that their choice had won them less than the maximum possible.
The ventral striatum in mentally healthy older subjects responded to outright loss of "winnings" with great activation. But it did not light up when the happy older adults discovered they might have won more; apparently, they were just happy to have come out ahead.
And the happy older subjects had one more brain quirk going for them that youths and the depressed older adults did not: Whenever regret was evident, the anterior cingulate cortex -- a key hub for communication between emotions and rational decision-making -- came alive in the happy older adults. This region's activation meant that older adults were actively overriding their regrets with rationalization, the researchers surmised. Subjects may have been absolving themselves of regret, telling themselves that because outcomes were random, or the experimenters were in control, their decisions were not to blame for their losses.
Had depressed older adults simply made more poor decisions, leading to more regret? Or did their tendency to blame themselves more for their losses make them depressed? This study doesn't answer that. But it does suggest that while dwelling on regret may serve us well in youth, doing so as we age will just make us unhappy.