Forgiveness Studies

In his book, “The Forgiving Self,” clinical psychologist Robert Karen describes case histories of patients whose lives have benefited by forgiving, and offers practical advice on how to bring yourself to forgive. Similar insights come from another clinical psychologist, Everett Worthington, Jr., author of “Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving.”

Worthington, who is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a pioneer in forgiveness research, has found that people who won’t forgive the wrongs committed against them tend to have negative indicators of health and well-being: more stress-related disorders, lower immune-system function, and worse rates of cardiovascular disease than the population as a whole. In effect, by failing to forgive they punish themselves. Unforgiving people are also thought to experience higher rates of divorce, which also reduces well-being, given that married men and women consistently do better on most health barometers, including longevity.

In contrast, people who forgive, Worthington finds, may have better health, fewer episodes of clinical depression, longer marriages, and better “social support,” another indicator of well-being. This latter means forgiving people get along better with others, who in turn come to their aid in social-support situations.

Forgiveness research is a comparatively new field. Psychologist Kenneth Pargament of Bowling Green University says that while psychology has long studied the coping mechanisms that people use to deal with anger, resentment, and desire for revenge when they are wronged, only recently has forgiveness–in some cases, the ultimate form of coping–become a common subject of research.

Some of the reluctance to study forgiveness stems, Pargament supposes, from the assumption that forgiveness can only be motivated by faith. A study at the University of Maryland found that many psychotherapists would discuss forgiveness with patients only or mainly in a religious context.

Here are other results from the new wave of forgiveness research:

  • A study at the University of Wisconsin showed that older people are more likely to forgive, suggesting forgiveness is a form of wisdom learned in stages.
  • A study at the University of Northern Iowa of psychological treatment plans for adult women who had been victims of childhood incest found that those who went through forgiveness therapy experienced less anxiety and clinical depression than a control group. Gains for the forgiveness group also persisted after the therapy ended.
  • A survey conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found that nearly three-quarters of respondents felt God had forgiven them for their sins, but only 52 percent had forgiven someone else. The survey also supported the contentions that older people are more likely to forgive than the young and that older people who forgive are rewarded by improved health. “The benefits of forgiveness seem to increase with age,” psychologist Loren Toussaint, the lead researcher, said.
  • A study of elderly women, published in the journal Psychotherapy, found that those who scored well on a standard test of forgiveness traits had higher self-esteem and fewer episodes of anxiety and depression compared to those who scored poorly. None of this makes forgiveness a panacea. Pargament notes that when people have first suffered a wrong or a tragic loss, it’s often pointless to speak of forgiveness: that can only come with time. And one study at the University of Miami at Ohio suggested that people whose partners had been sexually unfaithful might recover faster if they exacted some kind of emotional revenge on the guilty party. Thus, gentlemen, do not fool around and then try to tell your wife or girlfriend that it is in her self-interest to forgive you.

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