You’d think that twenty-somethings would feel fewer regrets than sixty-somethings, since they haven’t lived as long and haven’t missed as many chances — or if they had missed out on some amazing adventure or incredible relationship, they’re more likely to think that the chance will come around again and they can grab it then.
But a recent study of regret, in which the emotion was simulated by a Let’s Make a Deal-type computer game and subjects were put into functional MRI machines as they played, found that regret is more piercing in the young than in the old. What’s that about?
Most news accounts of the study, like Maia Szalavitz’s in Time magazine, suggest that old people have learned to tamp down their bittersweet feelings of regret, since there’s not much they can do about it anyway. Young people, goes this interpretation, haven’t learned this yet — nor have older people who are depressed. I get that last part; depression is practically defined by regret, by the continual loop of “what if” that plays in a depressed person’s head, uselessly, hauntingly, with no good outcome at the end, with only more of those useless, haunting “what if”s.
This view was supported by the brain imaging that went along with the regretful feelings. Young people, when they discovered that they had lost a lot of money because of their decision to stop opening boxes (“I’ll just stick with this door, Monty”), showed decreased activity in the ventral striatum, a brain region that tends to light up when people feel rewarded. But old people making the same discovery showed no change in the ventral striatum, and increased activity in the control region of the brain, the anterior cingulate, suggesting that they were actually tamping down their rueful feelings. As the investigators put it in their paper in Science, “Disengagement from regret experiences at a point of life where the opportunities to undo regrettable behavior are limited may be a protective strategy to maintain emotional well-being.”
But I wonder if something else is going on, a kind of overall mitigation of intense emotion that tends to happen with age. I don’t get the hammering in the chest I used to when about to interview a new source for an article; my husband, as a twenty-something college professor, would hear his own jaw squeaking when he would start a lecture, but that nervousness hasn’t happened to him in years. These are good things, but they also reflect something that’s kind of too bad, the quietude of middle age, when emotions settle down to little more than a background hum. And the loss of those high emotions — well, from the vantage point of the mellow old age of 58, that is what strikes me as something to regret.