Research on forgiveness has exploded over the past few decades. The number of studies focusing on forgiveness has grown exponentially. This might seem confusing given our discussion on the difficulties nailing down exactly what forgiveness is. However, despite the discrepancies in defining and conceptualizing forgiveness, it remains a strong and consistent predictor of positive health outcomes. In other words, even though we don’t know exactly why or how, it is clear that forgiveness is good for our health. Today we will explore the ways in which forgiveness is associated with better physical and mental health.
Forgiveness and Mental Health
One of the strongest and arguably most important associations between forgiveness and mental health occurs between forgiveness and anger. It is not surprising that the more forgiveness we experience, the less likely we are to experience anger. This is significant because anger is closely connected to physical health outcomes such as heart rate and blood pressure. However, the positive impact forgiveness has on our physical and mental health goes far beyond mere reductions in anger.
Overall, forgiveness is associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and posttraumatic stress. This means, when we forgive we are less likely to experience symptoms such as worry, irritability, or hypervigilance. There is also a negative relationship between forgiveness and depressive symptoms; meaning, more forgiveness is related to less feelings of sadness, crying spells, or negative thought processes.
As you can see, there is an inverse relationship between forgiveness and poorer mental health indicators. But the benefits of forgiveness on mental health do not stop there. It is also positively associated with a number of indicators of mental well-being. These include life-satisfaction, self-efficacy, self-acceptance, and positive affect. In other words, forgiveness does not just keep us from mental illness, it helps us to be well and to thrive.
Forgiveness and Physical Health
The relationships between forgiveness and mental health are amazing. However, it is hard to overstate how impressive the findings are on forgiveness and physical health. To put this in perspective, it is helpful to understand that typically when the relationships between mental health and physical health are researched, there are often discrepancies across studies or populations. Also, statistically these findings are often small in terms of effect size or statistical significance. However, one of the reasons forgiveness has become such a popular topic is tendency for it to consistently be a significant predictor of physical health outcomes.
Perhaps the most important area in which forgiveness is related to health is in objective measures of physical health. Not surprisingly, blood pressure and heart rate are two important health outcomes that are positively impacted by forgiveness. Furthermore, the negative health consequences – like higher blood pressure – of not forgiving seem to be more intense for relationships that are longer lasting and more intimate. Not only are blood pressure levels positively impacted by forgiveness, but it is also associated with better red and white blood cell counts and plasma levels in the blood.
Two other areas where forgiveness seems beneficial for physical health are in our stress response and sleep quality. In one study, participants were asked to recall the event in which they had been wronged. Those who reported greater levels of forgiveness not only experienced lower spikes in blood pressure, but also lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone) as compared to participants reporting lower levels of forgiveness. Interesting findings have also been shown for sleep quality. The findings in this area suggest that more forgiveness is associated with less anger rumination and less negative affect, which leads to better sleep quality.
A Few Words of Caution
This is obviously a very wide and superficial view of the health findings on forgiveness. There are many caveats and nuances in the forgiveness literature that cannot be appreciated here. It is important to remember that these findings may not be applicable to all populations or individuals. As with all data, there will be outliers, meaning there are some people whose outcomes are very different from the majority. We all are outliers in one area of our lives or another.
While the researcher in me likes to geek out over data, the therapist in me is cautious. Oftentimes, information about forgiveness can be twisted to encourage people to remain in abusive relationships. It is important to me that I am clear that forgiveness and reconciliation are two very different things. Forgiving someone does not necessarily mean you maintain contact with that person. Just as the associations between forgiveness and health are real, the associations between abuse and health are real. Any benefit one might gain from forgiveness would quickly be wiped away in an abusive relationship. Although forgiveness can be a great gift for someone who has wronged us, ultimately it is important that it is something we do for ourselves. Finally, remember forgiveness is a process and therefore, by its very nature, takes time.
References and Resources:
Enright, R., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000) Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.
Lawler, K. A., Younger, J. W., Piferi, R. L., Billington, E., Jobe, R., Edmondson, K., & Jones, W. H. (2003). A change of heart: Cardiovascular correlates of forgiveness in response to interpersonal conflict. Journal of behavioral medicine, 26(5), 373-393.
E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.; 2000), Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Guilford Press.
Solomon, Z., Dekel, R., & Zerach, G. (2009). Posttraumatic stress disorder and marital adjustment: The mediating role of forgiveness. Family Process, 48(4), 546-558.
Toussaint, L., Worthington, E., & Williams, D. R. (Eds.). (2015). Forgiveness and health: Scientific evidence and theories relating forgiveness to better health. Springer.
L. Worthington, Jr. (Ed.; 2005), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 557–573). New York: Routledge.
Special thanks to my dissertation committee:
Dr. Amy Peterman, Dr. Charlie Reeve, Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, Dr. Richard Tedeschi, and Dr. Edward Weirzalis