When we're young, regrets still have value -- they help us to think about the choices we've made before, and how to best move on for the future.
But a new study in the journal Science shows that regrets become less valuable as we age, and that actually letting go of regret and not ruminating on it may be the more emotionally healthy choice.
For the study, German researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a type of brain scan, on three demographics of study participants: healthy older adults, depressed older adults and young adults. The researchers had the study participants play a game on the computer where they had to open up boxes. Some of the boxes contained money that they could accumulate and earn, and some contained a picture of a devil, which signified game over. If a study participant opened up one of the boxes with money, he or she could decide whether to go on and open another box, or stop and keep whatever money they'd already earned.
At the end, all the boxes in the game were revealed to the study participant, to show whether he or she could've gone on in the game without hitting a devil.
Researchers found that when the young adults and the depressed older adults saw that they could've gone on to the next box without hitting a devil, they were more likely in future rounds of the game to take risks and keep selecting to open another box. However, this knowledge didn't seem to have any impact on the healthy older adults, the researchers said.
The brain scans also showed a similar result. The young adults and depressed older adults had similar brain activity in regions called the ventral striatum -- linked with feelings of regret -- and the anterior cingulate cortex -- linked with the regulation of emotions.
However, the healthy older adults didn't have the same sort of brain activity as the other study participants, which researchers said suggests lower feelings of regret and better regulation of emotions.
The study shows that older, healthy adults may use more emotionally healthy tactics when looking at life circumstances, like telling themselves that things were just by chance instead of blaming themselves, the researchers said.
This isn't the first study to show that letting go of regret is good for you. A study from Concordia University in Montreal shows that regret -- or rather, the distressing feelings that come with experiencing regret -- can actually have a negative effect on your immune system and hormones, the AARP Bulletin reported.
Health issues linked with holding on to regret included cold symptoms and feelings of depression, the AARP Bulletin reported.