Don't look back in anger, if you want to be happy in old age that is...

Feeling of regret is linked with depression among the elderly researchers find
  • @SteveAConnor

Do not look back in anger if you want to have a happy, healthy old age according to scientists who have discovered that the feeling of regret is linked with depression among the elderly.

Young people may be able to get away with regretting things because they can appear to do something about it by changing their behaviour but this approach does not work in older people, the researchers found.

A study that investigated the emotion of regret found depressed elderly people were more likely than their healthy counterparts to feel regret when confronted with a situation where they have lost out on the possibility of winning rewards.

Instead of coping with their regret by “emotional disengagement”, which is how their healthy, non-depressed counterparts dealt with the situation, the depressed elderly were more likely to try to compensate by taking bigger risks in the future, just like younger people, the researchers found.

“It seems to  be essential for our emotional wellbeing not to look back in anger and to focus on the positive when we are older,” said Stefanie Bressen of the University Medical Centre in Hamburg.

“In young adulthood, active attempts to overcome regretful situations may help to optimise future behaviour. As people age, however, there are fewer opportunities to make an effective change,” Dr Bressen said.

“Thus, it seems intuitive that to not look back in anger or disengage from regrets reflects an effective strategy to maintain emotional wellbeing,” she said.

The study, published in the journal Science, used a psychological test of regret based on boxes containing either a “gold” reward or a “devil” penalty, which when opened meant that everything was lost.

The volunteers could freely decide when to stop opening the boxes. They could keep their reward if they did not come across a devil, but if they did then not only did they lose what they gained, but they were also shown what they could have had if they had continued opening further boxes.

“During this risk taking task, people were not only provided with the actual outcomes of their choices, but also with alternative outcomes that could have been obtained had their choice been different,” Dr Bressen said.

“We know from previous studies that such a confrontation with missed opportunities can elicit a feeling of regret,” she said.

Young people and the elderly who were depressed tried to compensate when confronted with regret by taking bigger risks in future tests. Older, happier people, however, shrugged off the regret and continued to behave in the same way.

“We conclude that disengaging from regrets reflects a successful adaptation and might be regarded as a crucial resilience factor for emotional health in older age and against late-life depression,” she said.