When it comes to forgiveness we also celebrate Global Forgiveness Day every year, and many religions regularly celebrate forgiveness or atonement, such as the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur. Forgiving others may be a great way to start the new year.
Forgiveness is not just some relic of religion. It is so important it can extend a person’s life. Loren Toussaint and his colleagues investigated the relationships among forgiveness, religiousness, spirituality, health and mortality. The study included a sample of 1,500 U.S. adults age 66 and older.
Published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, the study they titled “Forgive to Live” was the first to test the benefits of forgiveness to a long life. The study sample group was restricted to current and former Christians as well as nonreligious people.
After controlling for social class, religiosity and others behaviors that can affect health, such as smoking and drinking, the researchers found that conditional forgiveness of others predicted mortality. That is, people who would forgive others only on conditional terms, died before people who scored lower on this measure, that is, who were more likely to forgive regardless of whether the other person asked for forgiveness or seemed repentant.
While the ultimate benefit to forgiveness may be a longer life, many other benefits are borne out through research.
Robert Enright, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher on moral development, including forgiveness education, has published more than 100 peer-reviewed studies on forgiveness. Together, Enright’s studies show that forgiveness improves emotional or physical health (or both) in numerous study populations, including: incest survivors, substance-dependent individuals, people with cardiac problems, emotionally abused women, and people with terminal cancer.
According to the Mayo Clinic, other benefits of forgiveness include:
• Healthier relationships
• Improved mental health
• Less anxiety, stress and hostility
• Lower blood pressure
• Fewer symptoms of depression
• A stronger immune system
• Improved heart health
• Improved self-esteem
An article on forgiveness and healthy aging posted on the Johns Hopkins Medicine website adds the benefits of a lowered heart attack risk, improved cholesterol levels and better sleep. Forgiveness may also lead to reduced pain, blood pressure, anxiety levels, depression and stress.
Given all the good forgiveness offers us, it should be easy, right? If you ever have had to forgive anyone, you know the answer to that. Wrongs or perceived wrongs done to us come dripping with pain and loss or cloaked in secrecy. Sometimes we don’t even know how much we have to forgive until we explode in anger we didn’t know we had.
Forgiveness is not as simple as saying a few words, like, “I forgive you.” It requires a well-considered, conscious decision to let go of anger, resentment or hostility whether the person deserves it or not. Sometimes it’s a process. As the anger, resentment and hostility is released, empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the wrong-doer can emerge.
Studies have found that some people who hang on to grudges are more likely to experience severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health conditions.
“Forgiveness is a choice,” said Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. “You are choosing to offer compassion and empathy to the person who wronged you.”
And most forgiveness researchers agree that forgiveness does not require exposing oneself over and over again to danger, such as an abusive parent or spouse. Forgiveness does not cancel out an offense and it does not mean forgetting.
Forgiveness means letting go of the hurt and pain. According to Sidney Simon, a recognized authority on values realization, says forgiveness as applied to human relationships can be defined as a “freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds.”
Forgiveness also frees people to see abusive or unhealthy situations in a new light. It enables wronged parties to let go of the wrongdoer emotionally and move into healthier connections.
Whether it takes a long time to process the pain or loss that came with the wrong, or whether we do it quickly, forgiveness should be a part of everyone’s life. Just don’t wait for the wrongdoers to repent first. As the Forgive to Live study showed, your life may depend on it.