This time of year with all those resolutions in the air may have you looking back, thinking about that other relationship or career you could have chosen, or other decisions that influenced your life.
However, beating yourself up about the outcome of actions or inactions from your younger years is not helpful for healthy ageing. French singer Edith Piaf was on the right path when she sang ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’.
Letting go of regrets and what might have been, is one of the best choices we can make in our later years for wellness, as we age, according to research carried out by scientists at the University Medical Centre in Hamburg-Eppendorf.
Stasfanie Brassen and her colleagues studied healthy young participants, average age 25, and healthy and unhealthy older participants, average age 65, and found that the young and older depressed people seemed to hold on to regrets about missed opportunities, while the healthy 65-year-olds managed to let them go.
The study participants played a risk-taking computer game which involved them experiencing missed opportunities around money, while their brains were scanned.
Researchers found that the area of the brain usually associated with regret was not as
active in the healthy older people, while it was in the others.
However, the emotion-controlling centre, which helps us to be more adaptive at whatever life throws at us, was much more active in the healthy older participants, as if they were mitigating the experience of regret.
The suggestion is that they had learnt in life to adjust and go forward, qualities that we all need in our later decades to adapt to healthy longevity.
Numerous studies have concentrated on the importance of staying positive in life, so that we can maintain healthy lifestyles as we age. Hanging on to regrets can lead to feelings of disappointment, guilt and dissatisfaction with ourselves, leading to low mood and loss of zest for life.
“A recent study reports romantic regrets to be the most common type,” says professor Billy O’Connor of the University of Limerick.
“Among women, regrets about romance were twice as common as among men. For men, work regrets were most widespread.”
“Other common areas of regret included financial decisions, parenting mistakes, missed educational opportunities and family arguments,” he tells Feelgood.
“Those with high levels of education had the most career-related regrets — the more acute may be the sensitivity to aspiration and fulfilment.”
Regret results from patterns of thinking called counterfactual reasoning — it allows us to compare alternative outcomes to the actual outcomes in our lives, he says.
“Counterfactual reasoning is part of normal thinking and can generate negative emotions like regret and disappointment, but it is an essential part of life.
"Regret is different to disappointment in that it results from our own bad decisions, has a strong sense of personal responsibility, and is often associated with guilt and shame.”
The important thing is not to become defined by our regrets; problems arise when counterfactual reasoning becomes too dominant.
“It is sobering to think that we have no one else to blame for our condition except ourselves. However, the upside is the possibilities in knowing that everything is up to us,” he says.
“A person is what he or she thinks about all day long, but habits of thinking need not be forever. Probably the greatest discovery of this generation is that the individual can alter quality of life by altering attitudes.”
While studies in ageing reveal that healthy older people report increased happiness and are less affected by regret, one answer is that those who have the knowledge of how thought works become “masters of self-control”, says O’Connor.
“They have learnt to regulate how they feel and are not swept up by everything going on around them. They become masters of themselves.
"Perhaps having many years to discover this knowledge gives the older person an advantage in the happiness stakes,” he says.
Cognitive behavioural therapy can help us change unhelpful habits and patterns of thinking by addressing three questions, he says.
What is the problem?
How is it affecting you?
What are you going to do about it?
For older people who might find themselves lost in regrets which are affecting their perspective on life, he suggests trying out those questions and writing out your answers on a sheet of paper, or alternatively work with an experienced therapist.
“Regretful thoughts can also come out of the blue, however. When this happens distraction is most effective. Listen to your favourite music or engage in good conversation.”
The most successful person is the one who is most efficient at managing failure, he adds.
Catching ourselves lost in those thoughts of regret, being aware, may be the best first step we can take then, if we can, now that we know the negative consequences of wallowing in them.