When you forgive someone, you make the choice to give up your desire for revenge and feelings of resentment. You also stop judging the person who caused you the hurt. Instead of revenge, resentment, and judgment, you show generosity, compassion, and kindness. In forgiveness, you don’t forget that the offense occurred nor do you excuse it. You substitute your negative with positive feelings, thoughts, and behavior (Enright et al., 1998).
Some people are naturally forgiving, both toward others and themselves. It’s easier for them to respond to any specific act of the person who’s committed the offense. Those who don’t have this ability may find it more difficult to grant forgiveness when they’ve hurt or harmed, but it is possible for them to do so, depending on the situation.
Recent research on the health benefits of forgiveness shows that people who can make this mental shift may benefit in ways they didn’t anticipate—namely, by living longer. In a study aptly called “Forgive to Live,” Luther College psychologist Loren Toussaint and colleagues investigated the relationships among forgiveness, religiousness, spirituality, health, and mortality in a national U.S. sample of 1500 adults age 66 and older. The study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, was the first to test the benefits of forgiveness to a long life.
Because the questions about religiosity and spirituality were specific to the Christian faith, Toussaint and colleagues restricted their sample to current and former Christians and nonreligious individuals. The original sample was followed up 3 years after they first participated, which allowed the researchers to determine whether earlier religious and forgiveness beliefs predicted later health problems and mortality.
Toussaint and his colleagues tested the life-sustaining benefits of forgiveness with a measure that assessed these 7 components. See how you would rate on each of these:
1. Conditional forgiveness of others. Do you feel that you can’t forgive others until they apologize to you? Do you agree to forgive others only if they promise not to do what they did any more?
2. Unconditional forgiveness of others. Can you forget as well as forgive? Do you expect that others don’t have to do anything special to deserve your forgiveness?
3. Unforgiveness of others. Do you hold a grudge toward other people? How often do you feel resentful toward others for what they’ve done?
4. Belief in God’s conditional forgiveness. In order to be forgiven, must you promise God that you won’t make the same mistake again? Must you ask God for forgiveness?
5. Belief in God’s unconditional forgiveness. Do you believe that God will forgive you, no matter what?
6. Ability to forgiveness yourself. Do you still feel bad about things you’ve done in the past?
7. Feeling forgiven by others. Do you think that people still blame you for your past mistakes or hurts you’ve caused them?
After controlling for religiosity, social class, and health-related behaviors (smoking and drinking), the one quality of forgiveness that predicted mortality was conditional forgiveness of others. People high on the scale of conditional forgiveness, meaning they will only forgive others on conditional terms, died before people who scored low on this measure.
Why would an inability to forgive others without an apology or promise to change predict earlier age of death? When the authors delved into this finding, they suggested that people who make these demands for forgiveness continue to harbor resentment and grudges, emotions that can impair their heart’s health. Continually nursing those negative feelings keeps your stress levels high, and it’s that stress that ultimately exacts a cost of earlier death. It’s important, then, to break forgiveness down into its specific components.
One of the obvious problems with conditional forgiveness is that it requires some sort of response from the person who’s wronged you. If that person is no longer alive or is no longer in contact with you, it will be impossible for you to reap out your forgiveness in return. Dr. Toussaint, in an email communication to me, noted that “this could reflect decades of waiting or anticipating that the conditions might be met for them to finally get over something.” According to the findings, some of these individuals would never have gotten the apologies they awaited. In contrast, if you decide to forgive the wrongdoer without an apology, then you can start the process at any time. The sooner the psychological healing begins, the more likely it is that your health will reap the benefits.
A second of the study’s findings provided an intriguing twist. People with high scores on the belief in God’s unconditional forgiveness also had higher mortality rates. However, the relationship between these aspect of forgiveness and mortality disappeared when the researchers took into account the extent to which respondents avoided smoking and drinking. Perhaps because they believed that God would forgive them no matter what, these high-risk individuals felt that it would be okay to indulge themselves in these guilty pleasures. It’s also possible that if you believe God will forgive you no matter what, you’d be less likely to seek forgiveness from the people who they interact with, and therefore will have poorer social relationships.
Although the other forgiveness scales didn’t predict mortality, this doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Overall forgiveness is linked to important aspects of physical and mental health.
Earlier research on forgiveness and measures of health, showed that forgiveness in general is positively associated with better health in terms of the heart, hormones, and immune system. There are also psychological benefits to forgiveness. People who forgive more readily are less likely to be depressed and anxious, and more likely to be happy. These physical and psychological qualities could all be key in predicting a longer life. The way you respond when you feel wronged, or when you seek even forgiveness of yourself, has a variety of health-boosting effects.
To sum up, if you want to benefit from the life-extending benefits of forgiveness, don’t wait for others to apologize to you or to promise that they will change. Start the process within your own mind, and you’ll be happier, and live longer.
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–Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.