Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.
―Henry David Thoreau
You have no doubt heard the phrase, “No one on their deathbed regrets not having worked more.” The point is clearly to remind us to focus on what matters. But are we truly motivated by a fear of regret?
Research suggests that the answer may differ with age. Earlier this year, Stefanie Brassen, of the University Medical Center Hamburg–Eppendorf in Germany, and her research team found that feelings of regret tend to decrease as we age, unless we suffer with depression. In fact, the researchers found differences in brain scans in the different groups, suggesting that this change is hardwired, solidified with time. These findings, published in Science, only confirmed earlier research, such as that done by Carsten Wrosch and colleagues at Concordia University’s Centre for Research in Human Development (CRDH) and a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Contrary to popular belief, regret is more the domain of the young. In general, as we gain wisdom and experience in life, we learn to let go of what we don’t control and focus on what matters most to us—and regrets of the past simply don’t matter.
I wonder if this change has anything to do with the high success rate of startups founded by people over 55? I also wonder what role it plays in the increasing number of boomer women starting their own businesses? Obviously, many factors are at play, as I’ve discussed, but I’m curious if this tendency to worry less about the past doesn’t play a role in the willingness to take risks and the motivation to follow through on our visions.
Regret is often seen as a reminder to avoid making the same mistakes again, but how well does that work, really? How often do people go through life doing the exact opposite: repeating the same mistakes over and over again? And how motivated are people who dwell on the past, on beating themselves up? Often this leads instead to a sense of futility. Why take the risks only to end up failing again? It’s almost as though regrets about the past become regrets about a future that hasn’t even happened yet.
And it’s worth noting that the people in these studies continued to learn from mistakes and had emotional reactions to them. They simply didn’t dwell on these mistakes or what could have been.
It’s no accident that people with depression were the exception to the pattern of having fewer regrets with age. This only underscores the idea that regret is not a motivator, as the old deathbed saying suggests. As many of the researchers note, these findings also point to the possibility of teaching tools for letting go and focusing on the here and now as a way to ease depression.
Keep in mind that these study results reflect a range, with the changes in overall well-being and the loss of regret happening over the span of decades, after 50 and most prominently after 65. My point is that by knowing this about our probable future psyches and brain chemistry, we can more consciously and confidently avoid giving our fear of regret (and of failure) so much weight in decisions about the future.
We can move forward boldly based on where we want to go, not where we’ve been.