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.
This attitude of letting go has been confirmed by multiple studies.
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 grapple with depression.
In fact, the researchers found differences in brain scans in the different groups, suggesting that this change is hard wired, 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 (CRHD) and a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
I wonder if this change has anything to do with the high success rate of start-ups 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, but I’m curious if this tendency to worry less about the past doesn’t play a role in the willingness to take risks (vs. being risky) and the motivation to follow through on our visions.
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that Americans between ages 55 and 64 were more confident in their entrepreneurial success and were less afraid of failure than other age groups. Donna Kelley, associate professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, found in her research that “Women entrepreneurs show a substantial boost in well-being as their businesses mature, demonstrating the personal return on investment that comes with venturing into entrepreneurship.”
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 focus on the past leads instead to a sense of futility. Why take 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 aspect only underscores the idea that regret is not a motivator.
As many of the researchers note, these findings point to the possibility of teaching tools for letting go and focusing on the here and now as a way to ease depression (e.g., take time out, practice yoga, listen to music, meditate, get a massage, exercise, learn how to step out and take a big-picture view of your situation, journal, learn expressive arts, go to a museum or gallery, eat well, limit alcohol and caffeine, get enough sleep, laugh and love a whole lot).
By knowing 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.