Tag Archives: regret

Letting Go of Regrets

[div class=attrib]From Mind Matters over at Scientific American:[end-div]

The poem “Maud Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier aptly ends with the line, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” What if you had gone for the risky investment that you later found out made someone else rich, or if you had had the guts to ask that certain someone to marry you? Certainly, we’ve all had instances in our lives where hindsight makes us regret not sticking our neck out a bit more.

But new research suggests that when we are older these kinds of ‘if only!’ thoughts about the choices we made may not be so good for our mental health. One of the most important determinants of our emotional well being in our golden years might be whether we learn to stop worrying about what might have been.

In a new paper published in Science, researchers from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany, report evidence from two experiments which suggest that one key to aging well might involve learning to let go of regrets about missed opportunities. Stafanie Brassen and her colleagues looked at how healthy young participants (mean age: 25.4 years), healthy older participants (65.8 years), and older participants who had developed depression for the first time later in life (65.6 years) dealt with regret, and found that the young and older depressed patients seemed to hold on to regrets about missed opportunities while the healthy older participants seemed to let them go.

To measure regret over missed opportunities, the researchers adapted an established risk taking task into a clever game in which the participants looked at eight wooden boxes lined up in a row on a computer screen and could choose to reveal the contents of the boxes one at a time, from left to right. Seven of the boxes had gold in them, which the participants would earn if they chose to open them. One box, however, had a devil in it. What happens if they open the box with the devil in it? They lose that round and any gold they earned so far with it.

Importantly, the participants could choose to cash out early and keep any gold they earned up to that point. Doing this would reveal the location of the devil and coincidently all of the gold they missed out on. Sometimes this wouldn’t be a big deal, because the devil would be in the next box. No harm, no foul.  But sometimes the devil might be several boxes away. In this case, you might have missed out on a lot of potential earnings, and this had the potential to induce feelings of regret.

In their first experiment, Brassen and colleagues had all of the participants play this ‘devil game’ during a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) brain scan.  They wanted to test whether young participants, older depressed, and healthy older participants responded differently to missed opportunities during the game, and whether these differences might also be reflected in activity in one area of the brain called the ventral striatum (an area known to very active when we experience regret) and another area of the brain called the anterior cingulate (an area known to be active when controlling our emotions).

Brassen and her colleagues found that for healthy older participants, the area of the brain which is usually active during the experience of regret, the ventral striatum, was much less active during rounds of the game where they missed out on a lot of money, suggesting that the healthily aging brains were not processing regret in the same way the young and depressed older brains were. Also, when they looked at the emotion controlling center of the brain, the anterior cingulate, the researchers found that this area was much more active in the healthy older participants than the other two groups. Interestingly, Brassen and her colleagues found that the bigger the missed opportunity, the greater the activity in this area for healthy older participants, which suggests that their brains were actively mitigating their experience of regret.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

The five top regrets of dying people

Social scientists may have already examined the cross-cultural regrets of those nearing end of life. If not, it would make fascinating reading to explore the differences and similarities. However, despite the many traits and beliefs that divide humanity, it’s likely that many of these are common.

[div class=attrib]By Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking:[end-div]

Bronnie Ware is the author (a bit too much on the mystical-touchy-feely side for my taste) of the blog “Inspiration and Chai” (QED). But she has also worked for years in palliative care, thereby having the life-altering experience of sharing people’s last few weeks and listening to what they regretted the most about their now about to end lives. The result is this list of “top five” things people wished they had done differently:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is, of course, anecdotal evidence from a single source, and as such it needs to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. But it is hard to read the list and not begin reflecting on your own life — even if you are (hopefully!) very far from the end.

Ware’s list, of course, is precisely why Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (in Apology 38a, Plato’s rendition of Socrates’ speech at his trial), and why Aristotle considered the quest for eudaimonia (flourishing) a life-long commitment the success of which can be assessed only at the very end.

Let’s then briefly consider the list and see what we can learn from it. Beginning with the first entry, I’m not sure what it means for someone to be true to oneself, but I take it that the notion attempts to get at the fact that too many of us cave to societal forces early on and do not actually follow our aspirations. The practicalities of life have a way of imposing themselves on us, beginning with parental pressure to enter a remunerative career path and continuing with the fact that no matter what your vocation is you still have to somehow pay the bills and put dinner on the table every evening. And yet, you wouldn’t believe the number of people I’ve met in recent years who — about midway through their expected lifespan — suddenly decided that what they had been doing with their lives during the previous couple of decades was somewhat empty and needed to change. Almost without exception, these friends in their late ‘30s or early ‘40s contemplated — and many actually followed through — going back to (graduate) school and preparing for a new career in areas that they felt augmented the meaningfulness of their lives (often, but not always, that meant teaching). One could argue that such self-examination should have occurred much earlier, but we are often badly equipped, in terms of both education and life experience, to ask ourselves that sort of question when we are entering college. Better midway than at the end, though…

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]