Forgiveness isn't just a spiritual experience but one that affects you inside out. From improved mental health to lower stress, it can do wonders.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 19, 2020, and has since been updated.
In a litigation-happy society, forgiveness can sometimes take a backseat. However, there is a lot of research that shows that when we open our hearts and forgive others, it's actually beneficial for our mental and physical health. Sometimes, the dark thoughts of revenge and anger can cloud our perception and even the slightest wrongs done to us can fester in our mind. But, there is a positive way out of this situation when we take the high road and move on.
"Forgiveness is a topic that's psychological, social and biological," Loren Toussaint, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa, tells American Psychological Association. "It's the true mind-body connection," he added.
One of the most difficult things a child might be ever faced with is forgiving someone for the death of their parent. Everett Worthington, Ph.D, who had been studying forgiveness found himself in a situation where he had to forgive the man who killed his mother during a home invasion situation. While a gesture this big, called "heroic forgiveness" by Toussaint, is rare, forgiving even the small slights can have a positive effect on us.
This is how forgiveness benefits the forgiver:
Bob Enright, Ph.D, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a pioneer who has been studying forgiveness for decades, said that forgiveness has positive effects on those who have gone through spousal emotional abuse. In a study, The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse, he used forgiveness therapy on a group of women and found that there was an improvement in them. When we let go, we are taking a big burden off of our chest that had only been holding us down. And that, over time, can lead to better mental health for the forgiver.
When you are angry for a long time on someone it takes a toll on your health by increasing the stress on your heart. According to John Hopkins Medicine, chronic anger results in a change in heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response. These changes can lead to a higher risk of depression, heart disease, and diabetes, among other conditions. Meanwhile, when we forgive those who have wronged us it makes us calmer and reduces stress levels, which leads to better health.
John Hopkins Medicine found that when we forgive others and let go of chronic anger we improve how our body defends itself against bacteria, viruses, toxins, and other harmful substances. When we are perpetually angry it puts us in a fight or flight mode constantly, which affects our body functions. The older we get the more positive are the effects of forgiving people on our health.
When you forgive others it helps you in forgiving yourself too, according to Baylor University researchers. Published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, a study called Tipping the scales: Conciliatory behavior and the morality of self-forgiveness, said that the people who forgave others were more likely to forgive themselves too. The compassion they show others could get translated to themselves too.
"One barrier people face in forgiving themselves is that they feel they deserve to feel bad. Our study found that making amends gives us permission to let go," study researcher Thomas Carpenter, of Baylor University's College of Arts & Sciences, said in a statement.
When the researcher, Toussaint, and colleagues were studying the connection between stress, psychological well-being, and forgiveness, they found that people who had more stress throughout their life were in worse mental health conditions. Among those people was a smaller group who had said they practice more forgiveness than the others. For that smaller group, a lifetime of stress didn't lead to poor mental health. Their results were published in the study, Effects of lifetime stress exposure on mental and physical health in young adulthood: How stress degrades and forgiveness protects health. "We thought forgiveness would knock something off the relationship [between stress and psychological distress], but we didn't expect it to zero it out," he says.
Never thought it was so simple, was it? Forgiveness may not be an easy thing to do, but the reasons you should do it are too many to ignore.