Key to Aging Well: Let go of Regret

Seema Singh
Updated: Apr 20, 2012 10:41:28 AM UTC

Until Dec 31,2013, I was a Senior Editor at Forbes India and I usually wrote about science and technology on this blog. I believe while we may have settled into consuming the nicely packaged final products of science - technology being a hand maiden of science - we are distancing ourselves from all the effort that goes into it. This blog was an attempt to bring occasional peek into those efforts and ideas. I've been a journalist for 17 years and have written for The Asian Age, The Times of India, Mint, Red Herring, IEEE-Spectrum, Cell, New Scientist and others. I'm now available at You will find my future articles on

 At one level, some would say, this is tautology. Aging and letting go have always been synonymous. At another, this would look defeatist, especially at a time when people are taking up professional challenges way past their prime and well into their 60s and 70s.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that there’s been a surge in scientific investigation and life-span theories in recent times. Adding to the tome is another study published in Science today where a German team reports that one of the keys to emotionally healthy aging is to let go of regrets about missed opportunities.

“Don’t’ Look Back in Anger” says the paper.

When we’re young, regret might help us make better decisions in the future. But, the likelihood of second chances decreases as we get older, and the benefit of ruminating upon them probably disappears, say researchers at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf inHamburg.

This work was inspired by very interesting findings from socio-emotional life-span research showing that emotionally healthy aging is associated with an increased focus on positive aspects, says Stefanie Brassen, the lead author of the study. “And this ‘positivity bias’ includes a reduced responsiveness to regret.”

Several behavioral studies have shown that older adults who disengage from regrets by using regulation strategies like external attribution -- I had no personal influence on this situation when it happened/not happened -- have a better “life-satisfaction”. They also report fewer depressive symptoms. In this study the research group was interested in investigating whether there is a neurobiological mechanism underlying such a successful adaptation to age. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of three groups of people - young adults, depressed older adults, and healthy older adults.

Without getting into the experimental set up, let me come to the conclusion: Brassen and colleagues propose that healthy older adults may use helpful mental strategies, like reminding themselves that the results were up to chance, whereas depressed older adults may blame themselves for the outcome.

The authors also speculate that training people to use these mental strategies might help preserve emotional health in old age.

“In our future studies we plan to address the question of whether such a frontal regulatory ability [of the brain] can be boosted by age-specific trainings of emotion regulation in late-life depression but also in healthy older adults,” she says. This has already been shown regarding the treatment of midlife depression and anxiety disorders

If are in the company of elderly people, they’d tell you that Indian philosophy has stressed upon this “let go” approach to life in its various texts and sub-texts. I don’t claim any knowledge on this; the only philosophic/religious text that I have read, in abridged form, is the Gita. One of the things that the Gita emphasizes is “emotional regulation.” (Researchers have shown that the concepts of wisdom in the Gita are relevant to modern psychiatry in developing psychotherapeutic interventions.)

So is this convergence of philosophy and neuroscience new?

Not exactly, says Rajesh Kasturirangan, associate professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies inBangalore. His research interests are in cognitive science and philosophy of mind.

He doesn’t find this convergence surprising, though he wouldn’t put a huge emphasis on ancient Indian wisdom. “I think it is general common sense to not be too attached to one’s circumstances or to be too regretful of one’s past. ‘Let it go’ is pretty universal and I would predict that it is a successful strategy not just for older people but for all of us.”

More generally, he says, neuroscience has a lot to learn from philosophy, especially Indian philosophy, but it involves going well beyond the usual platitudes offered in the name of philosophy. The interface between the two is very exciting and just about beginning to bear fruit. “The biggest danger is an easy reduction of wisdom to neuroscience - there are no Rishi's in the brain.”

Certainly, none of us is looking for Rishi-Muni’s in the brain. But a collective learning to develop right responses to missed chances in life would come in handy. I’d argue that such research findings have significance beyond themselves. Even a young nation likeIndia will have 12-13 percent of its population above 60 by 2025, according to the WHO. And the statistic about emotional health isn’t encouraging either. About 21 percent of the elderly population today suffers from old-age depression.

As more people age, “emotional” health would be integral to public health management. After all, don’t most of us also live with regrets? Oh okay, some regrets?

I do. Having lived through two dotcom booms (the first being followed by bust), the most current regret is: could I have opted for a career where money would chase my ideas, rather than I chase ideas (for stories, of course)?

What regrets do you live with?





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