Should we try to forgive those who have hurt us? According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (10th edition), to forgive is to “stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone for an offence or mistake,” and recent research shows that exercising forgiveness boosts health and improves life satisfaction.
In October 2017 the Journal of Religion and Health published a Turkish study that investigated religious belief and forgiveness in diabetic patients. Noting a high frequency of depression and anxiety among diabetics, researchers recruited 100 type 2 diabetic patients (18 to 65 years) who provided blood samples and completed standardized, attitude-based questionnaires. The patients’ “level of religious belief was not related with the levels of depression, trait anxiety, glycemic index, diabetes-related stress and quality of life.” By contrast, “a high level of forgiveness was found to be related to lower depression, trait anxiety, diabetes-related stress and a higher quality of life.” It seems that, as forgiveness levels in diabetic patients increase, “there is an increase in social support and improved quality of relationships, and therefore the coping capability can be thought to increase with lower stress levels resulting in the patient with fewer negative feelings caused by the disease.”
A Dutch study, published recently in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, researched the role of forgiveness during contentious divorces. This study of 246 divorced parents noted that, in post-divorce relationships, “partners intentionally or unintentionally hurt or offend each other” and that forgiveness plays an important healing role: “Empirical research consistently finds that forgiveness has profound consequences for the forgiving individual, such as beneficial effects for psychological and physical health, greater life satisfaction, and lower levels of psychological distress.” The researchers also consider forgiveness to be “one of the strongest predictors of the quality of co-parenting over time.”
A Polish study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences investigated “forgiveness and life satisfaction across different age groups in adults”. The extent to which 436 Polish adults (aged 19 to 67 years) were disposed to forgiveness was measured using an adapted Heartland Forgiveness Scale. Although young adults displayed the lower levels of forgiveness than older adults, the researchers found that young adults’ tendency to forgive was not only associated with life satisfaction “but also that positive forgiveness (especially of self and of others) is associated with high subjective well-being. Our results suggest that the willingness to forgive might be a significant element in the successful transition to adulthood.”
Psychotherapist and lead author of the study Dr. Kinga Kaleta told Thrive Global,: “Forgiveness means not only overcoming unforgiveness, i.e. abandoning hatred, anger, fear, sadness, grudge, and revenge, but generating positive feelings, thoughts and behaviors toward the wrongdoer. The first perspective is called ‘negative’ and relates to releasing oneself from psychological pain. The second, ‘positive’ outlook helps us thrive and enhances positive affect and beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world.”
Kaleta’s team believes that in attaining adulthood we acquire a firm sense of our own identity, providing a foundation for establishing social connections and creating emotional bonds: “The ability to forgive, especially to let go of resentment, seems to be necessary to form intimate and cooperative relationships.”
What happens neurologically when we forgive? Dr. Alvin J. Clark, writing in the journal Medical Hypotheses, suggests that before forgiveness occurs, memories periodically stimulate the amygdala to generate a feeling of fear, which in turn promotes a pattern of anger and a fight-or-flight reaction. But when we forgive, “the frontal cortex interrupts the pattern and quells the fear response in the amygdala. The resultant relaxation of muscular tension signals the cortex that forgiveness has occurred.”
Clark quotes Frans de Waal’s book Peacemaking Among Primates (1989): “The fact that monkeys, apes and humans all engage in reconciliation behaviour means that [forgiveness] is probably over thirty million years old… Instead of looking at reconciliation as a triumph of reason over instinct, we need to begin to study the roots and universality of the psychological mechanisms involved.”