by Tara Parker-Pope
Published: April 20, 2023
Early in his career as a marriage counselor, psychologist Everett Worthington noticed that many couples were angry about perceived slights and real wrongs — and he realized they could make progress only if they forgave each other.
Those insights prompted Worthington to embark on a decades-long academic career studying the science of forgiveness.
While the act of forgiving is often discussed by faith communities, Worthington has found that a secular approach to forgiveness also can be a useful strategy in improving health. He and his colleagues recently completed a study conducted across five countries showing that when forgiveness is taught, practiced and achieved, the result is better mental and overall well-being.
“Forgiveness can change relationship dynamics and prevent a lot of very costly things that can happen in society,” said Worthington, a professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University. “There are injustices we experience every day. People don’t have to forgive — it’s a choice people may make or not make.”
Forgiveness as a public health issue
Worthington developed workbooks and included exercises and prompts that allow people to explore feelings of anger and resentment and learn to let go of them.
The latest version, which is free to download in five languages, promises that you can become a more forgiving person in about two hours, and includes thought exercises to help explore specific transgressions and work through feelings of anger and resentment. It’s based on the most effective exercises used in prior research, and has been condensed to save time and make the program more accessible.
The randomized study, which was conducted among 4,598 participants in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ukraine, Colombia and South Africa, asked half the participants to complete the workbook exercises over a two-week period. (The other half were allowed to try the workbook later.)
After two weeks, the study showed that the workbook had promoted forgiveness and shown a statistically meaningful reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms among users compared with the control group. The research is being presented this weekend at Harvard University at an interdisciplinary conference on forgiveness. The study was published as a preprint timed with the conference and is under review for publication by a medical journal.
Similar studies in the United States also show benefits. The findings have broad implications for public health, said Tyler VanderWeele, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Human Flourishing Program.
“I think the experience of being wronged is quite common,” said VanderWeele, a co-author of the new research and organizer of the Harvard conference. “We’ve seen that this forgiveness workbook can be used to address forgiveness and improve mental health. If the resource is widely disseminated, the effects on population mental health could be substantial.”
Other researchers led by Robert Enright, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, have also focused on forgiveness for programs for young people. Their workbooks and teacher training programs have been shared with thousands of educators worldwide.
Studies have shown that children who forgive do better academically and that, overall, forgiveness can result in lower blood pressure, better sleep and less anxiety, among other things.
When forgiveness feels impossible
Worthington can relate to those who think forgiveness in some circumstances simply can’t be achieved. His belief in forgiveness was challenged when his mother was killed in 1996 — and he was forced to cope with his own anger toward the perpetrator and the police, whom he blamed for the lack of a conviction.
“Suddenly here I was, someone who had studied forgiveness, and now I had to really deal with something that was much more serious than I had ever experienced before,” he said.
He said he was able to forgive the man suspected in the killing, a troubled individual with a below-average IQ and a history of being abused as a child. It was more difficult, he said, to forgive the police officers for their inconclusive investigation. The experience showed him that forgiveness and wanting justice are not mutually exclusive.
He also learned that sometimes smaller transgressions can even be harder to let go. “I’m not some kind of super-forgiver,” Worthington said. “I often think about a professor who gave me a B in graduate school. It took me 10 years to forgive him.”
Advocates of forgiveness training say it’s important to know the time and place for forgiveness. Someone in an abusive relationship, for instance, should not forgive. They should seek safety.
“The science is clear that it works,” said Andrew Serazin, president of the Templeton World Charity Foundation, which helped pay for the research. “It helps the people who are doing the forgiving. It helps inside your own skin. That doesn’t mean you can’t seek justice. It doesn’t mean people can’t go to trial. It doesn’t mean there are no consequences.”
Start small and practice
The first step toward forgiveness is simply deciding to forgive. To achieve emotional forgiveness, a person needs to let go and stop dwelling on being wronged. It requires a conscious choice to replace ill will toward a person with feelings of good will. “Emotional forgiveness takes longer,” Worthington said.
The recent study focused on the REACH method of forgiveness. REACH stands for:
- Recall: Recall the hurt. Look at the incident in an objective way, and don’t try to push aside your feelings.
- Empathize: Empathize with the offender — without excusing the action or invalidating your own feelings. Maybe the person was having a bad day or was raised in dire circumstances.
- Altruistic gift: Give the altruistic gift of forgiveness. Think about a time when you were rude or harsh, and recognize that everyone has shortcomings.
- Commit: Make a decision to forgive. You can write a letter that you don’t send to help yourself make the commitment.
- Hold: Hold on to forgiveness. Memories of the transgression or event won’t change. But how you react to those feelings will.
While the forgiveness study showed that people benefited from the intervention, it also revealed that the effects can fade over time, underscoring the need to keep practicing. Practice can start with small acts. If someone cuts in line or is rude to you at the checkout counter, use that as an opportunity to forgive, recognizing the bad behavior wasn’t personal.
“Forgiveness doesn’t solve all problems,” Worthington said. “But forgiveness is freeing. It’s the right response to being wronged.”