We’ve all been hurt by someone, whether it was parents or strangers or that person who broke your heart in college. And most of us are wronged fairly often, whether it’s someone cutting us off in traffic or being a jerk at the grocery store or a boss that doesn’t treat us fairly.
When we are hurt or wronged, there are essentially two routes we can take: forgive or not forgive (hold a grudge, stay angry, get revenge).
Forgiveness is typically taught as the right thing to do. It’s often considered a virtue. But does it help us lead a better life?
Specifically, is forgiveness good for our health?
Does it have tangible, measurable, positive effects?
Within the past few years, there have been numerous empirical studies on the effects of forgiveness, and what they have found is fascinating.
Studies have shown that forgiveness can reduce blood pressure, boost immunity, reduce pain and chronic illness, decrease anxiety and depression, and strengthen relationships.
But before diving into the specific effects of forgiveness, we need to clarify what forgiveness is and isn’t. While it’s a nebulous topic, Harvard Health provides a helpful list:
Health benefits of forgiveness
With that clarification in place, here are some health benefits of forgiveness:
Lowers blood pressure
Multiple studies have shown that forgiving someone decreases blood pressure in the one doing the forgiving (such as here, here, and here). However, in a study of married couples, forgiving was shown to significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in both the person doing the forgiving and the person being forgiven. While this type of forgiveness is confined within relationships, it’s an interesting find because it means that not only does forgiveness do good to us, but it does good to the world. Just like blood pressure measures the sending out and taking in of blood, forgiveness both sends health out and takes health in.
Boosts immune system
According to a study on the cardiovascular effects of forgiveness, people who forgive report less illnesses. Another study performed on HIV patients by researchers at Duke University found that patients who were more forgiving of people in their past who had wronged them had higher percentages of CD4 cells. CD4 cells are an important part of the immune system, as they notify other cells to kill viruses and infections. Low levels of CD4 cells make the body more susceptible to sickness.
Decreases pain and chronic illness
Nearly every middle-age person I know experiences back pain. Usually the treatment is rest, physical therapy, chiropractic services, etc. However, forgiveness might also help. One study of people with chronic back pain selected some participants to receive usual care for eight weeks and some to take an eight-week course on turning anger into compassion. Here’s what Harvard Health said about the results:
“At the end of the eight weeks, those receiving usual care showed no change in their discomfort, but those practicing the meditation felt significantly less pain and anxiety.”
PsychCentral talked about a different study that found similar results:
“[A study] from the University of Tennessee and University of Wisconsin, Madison, attributed forgiveness to fewer medically diagnosed chronic conditions and fewer physical symptoms from illness.”
Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley have found a strong link between relationships and forgiveness. Here’s what they had to say:
“We asked people to remember a specific offense in which someone harmed them, and then asked about their motives for revenge and for avoiding the perpetrator. People who showed high motivations for revenge and avoidance had lower relationship satisfaction. People who tended to forgive reported greater relationship quality and also greater commitment to relationships.”
In the past we’ve talked about how people with deep relationships tend to live longer and enjoy better health. Forgiveness can be an effective tool to maintain the kinds of relationships that produce health benefits.
Decreases anxiety and depression
The Journal of Consulting Psychology published a study that examined how forgiveness affected anxiety and depression in women who were abused by a spouse. The study found that women who underwent forgiveness therapy moved from the mild to moderate depression range to the minimal or non-depressed range. Furthermore, the women moved from near-psychiatric levels of anxiety to levels below the published norm. On the other hand, women who underwent alternative therapies (anger validation, assertiveness, interpersonal skill building) stayed in the mild to moderate range of depression and their anxiety levels remained above the norm.
How does forgiveness work?
The primary way forgiveness provides health benefits is by reducing stress. Stress can cause increased blood pressure, anxiety, and depression while decreasing our immune system. The inverse of these effects of stress are the benefits of forgiveness. Forgiveness helps move us from a place of conflict to a place of peace, from a place of tension to a place of calm. For more on stress, check out what it does to the size of our brains.
How to start forgiving
It’s clear that forgiveness has measurable, positive effects on our health. Whether or not forgiving is the right thing to do, it seems to be the best thing. But I don’t think it comes naturally. At least it doesn’t for me. The natural tendency is to want revenge or hold a grudge. But if we are serious about our health, we need to learn how to be forgiving.
Here are some tips to help you get started:
1. Make sure your ready. Forgiveness isn’t like running. It’s not something we can be forced to do and it’s not something we can do reluctantly. We have to be ready and willing to begin the process of forgiving and healing.
2. Get prepared to work. Forgiveness isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally. It takes a lot of hard and messy and intentional effort. It might mean revisiting old wounds or confronting ugly parts of us.
3. Understand it’s a process. Becoming more forgiving doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a skill that requires a lot practice. Furthermore, forgiving significant offenses doesn’t happen overnight either. It takes time to work through the pain and forgive in a healthy way.
4. See a counselor. Counselors are trained at helping people navigate the messy parts of life. When we try to forgive on our own, it can easily turn into ignoring, allowing hurtful behavior to continue, or stuffing emotions down. A good counselor helps forgiveness to happen in a healthy way.
5. Share with friends. Having a support system of people who know what we are experiencing and are committed to helping us is vital to our health and happiness. When we share our emotions and thoughts with a community, they can share perspective, wisdom, and strength with us.
6. Focus on the positive. When people wrong me in a small way, I’ve found that it helps me to forgive them if I assume the best in them. For example, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I try to assume they are in a hurry to help a loved one. If someone doesn’t text me back, I assume they are stressed. If I don’t assume the best, even if the best is improbable, the wrong will bug me all day. That creates stress. Forgiving helps diffuse the negative emotions. However, it’s different when people wrong us in larger ways. If someone is abusing you, it doesn’t help to assume the best in them, as the best is not what’s happening. So focusing on the positive will look more like affirming your worth and beauty, or focusing on how to find healing and stop the harm being done to you.
7. Meditate. Meditating is a helpful tool to separate yourself from the stress and refocus your mind. Meditation focused on turning anger into compassion can help us forgive and also relieve stress and anxiety. For more information on mediation and how to get started, check out this helpful article from Buffer.
Now we know what science has to say about forgiveness, but I’d like to hear from you. What has been your experience with forgiveness, either receiving it or giving it? Have you noticed any positive or negative effects on your life?