Getting Over the Road Not Traveled

04/25/2012 11:50 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2012

Last Sunday, after a particularly wild out of town weekend with family and friends, a small group of us convened for brunch before going our separate ways. I looked at the menu, and while the chilaquiles softly called to me, I opted for my standby: huevos rancheros. But when the food came out I was consumed with regret. I should have ordered the friggen chilaquiles.

Regret. Such a miserable feeling. If only! I should have! Why didn't I? When you're deep in the throes of musing over the road not traveled, it's hard to imagine two uglier words that these: What if? 

Ugly words, and seemingly unavoidable. Every choice entails a trade-off, right? But a recent study shows that those unpleasant feelings of regret ease as we get older. That indeed, what age takes away in collagen and hangover resilience, it gives back in the form of a certain kind of contentment.

The latest research suggests that young people tend to fixate on their regrets, whereas older adults generally learn not to waste time wallowing in remorse about past circumstances they cannot change. A new study demonstrates that these cognitive differences manifest themselves in brain scans and physiological responses, revealing that, unlike healthy adults, both depressed adults and young people treat missed opportunities and genuine losses as equally regretful events -- even if they were not directly responsible. Taming such ruefulness appears to be crucial to emotional stability and happiness in old age, and related therapies could help with depression. For the young, however, a little regret might be useful, motivating them to learn from their mistakes.

The study in question was led by Stefanie Brassen and her colleagues at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany. It involved a simple gambling video game, played from within the comfortable confines of an MRI machine. On the screen, participants saw a row of eight unopened boxes that they could open one at a time, from left to right -- and were told that seven of the boxes would contain gold, and one would contain a devil, who would steal whatever gold had been amassed. Devilish! Participants could quit at any time, but once they did, the contents of all the remaining boxes would be revealed -- so they'd get a good look at what they missed out on.

And the brain scans showed that -- if you'll allow me to paraphrase -- realizing they'd bugged out before collecting all of the gold there was to be had only bothered the young adults and the depressed older adults. The healthy older adults' brains showed hardly any change. In other words, healthy adults don't moon over the road not traveled the way their younger counterparts do.

Regret is a huge topic in our book, because it's so inextricably tied to making choices, and taking chances. We fear being left with regrets almost as much as we fear failure. Because that feeling is just so awful -- the wondering about what we're missing out on gnaws, and the gnawing saps the joy out of whatever it is we are doing, you know, instead of that thing we're not. But, it seems that, as is the case with failure, perhaps there's a bright side to regret: it, too, can be a teacher.

Brassen further proposes that disengaging from regret is a protective strategy that kicks in sometime in old age, preventing the elderly -- who do not have as much time or opportunity to make amends -- from needlessly feeling sorry about things they cannot realistically change. In contrast, young people have their whole lives ahead of them -- plenty of time to repeat their mistakes if they do not learn from them.

Wrosch says he thinks about regret similarly: 'If someone in their 70s regrets that they never had the education or job they wanted, there's no going back to change life circumstances. But if a similar regret happens to someone in their early 20s, they can use that information to turn their life around.'

Kind of a sad spin on what's really going on with the, um, more mature among us, but also, I suppose, reassuring: our trusty brains will shield us from the dark feelings of regret once it's too late to make changes. Which might also mean this: if you're actively feeling regret, perhaps it's possible that it's not too late yet.

Bring on the friggen chilaquiles.