by Elizabeth Gassin and Robert Enright
What is forgiveness? When we began studying forgiveness in the 1980s, our first concerns were definitional. What exactly is this process—this virtue—that philosophers and theologians had been advocating for thousands of years? In order to move forward with our psychological research, we first let those wise voices speak. We combed ancient texts and the work of current thinkers in philosophy and theology, gleaning ideas about what forgiveness is and is not. From this endeavor, we generated a definition that stressed the following points:
- Forgiveness takes place in the context of being treated unfairly. Defining what is “unfair treatment” requires a rational, relatively objective evaluation, not simply an emotional judgment.
- When we forgive, we willfully give up resentment and other negative responses to the person who hurt us, even though we may have a right to those responses.
- When we forgive, we strive to respond to the wrongdoer based on the principle of beneficence, or doing something for the good of another (not just for ourselves).
- Beneficent responses are based on one or more of the following: compassion, unconditional worth (that is, realizing the offender is a person worthy of respect simply because he or she is a human being), generosity, and/or moral love. The offender does not have a right to be treated in a way that reflects these elements of beneficence, but in forgiveness we choose to act according to one or more of them anyway.
Because there are so many flawed ways to define forgiveness, we also took care to define what forgiveness is not. The following are examples of concepts that are sometimes confused with forgiveness but are either completely separate ideas or are somehow incomplete in what they convey about the concept:
- Legal pardon: Forgiveness is the decision of an individual who has been hurt and does not prohibit the legal system from enacting punishment if some crime was committed in the hurtful situation.
- Condoning, justifying, or excusing: Forgiveness acknowledges a moral wrong has been committed by the offender and does not in any way imply that the hurtful action was unavoidable or even acceptable.
- Balancing scales: Justice is not required before forgiveness is offered. While a person may forgive and seek justice at the same time, the former does not depend on the latter. For example, the victim of a robbery may seek to have the goods returned or compensated but also forgive the robber, regardless of whether justice is attained.
- Forgetting: It is nearly impossible to forget the details of a hurtful situation. Forgiveness involves learning to recall the situation in a new light.
- Saying “I forgive you”: Forgiveness concerns our inner orientation towards someone who has hurt us. In some cases, telling the person that one has forgiven him or her is impossible or inadvisable. In addition, in the absence of authentic forgiveness these words can be used in a haughty or manipulative manner.
- Reconciliation: We maintain that reconciliation is a re–establishment of a prior relationship with an offender, which is not the same as developing a positive personal orientation towards an offender. In most cases, reconciliation would require the offender repent of his or her hurtful behavior, so that the hurt person is not walking back into a situation where he or she will be injured again. Forgiveness, on the other hand, concerns one’s overall orientation towards the offender and is under control of the person who was injured.
With these thoughts about forgiveness in hand, we set ourselves the task of developing ways to assess forgiveness and studying its effects on people.
What Does the research show? In turning to our research that addresses the impact of forgiveness on those who offer it, it is important to note that the studies we mention here are usually what scientists call true or full experiments. This means we can make fairly confident cause–and–effect statements from them. In other words, in a true experiment, if we find that those participating in a group that learns about and engages in the forgiveness process ultimately demonstrate less depression than those who participate in a different kind of group (or no group at all), then we have the best evidence we can get that the forgiveness experience caused a decrease in depression. Psychologists conduct many other types of studies, but none give us causal insights like a true experiment.
In our previous article, we outlined the impact of the forgiveness education program we have designed for children in Belfast and Milwaukee. As we noted in that article, we have sound evidence that children who received our forgiveness curriculum demonstrate a bigger drop in anger than children who do not learn about forgiveness. And this is not the only series of studies to show that children benefit from forgiveness interventions. In Hong Kong, Hui and Chau conducted an experiment with forgiveness education for sixth–graders (11 and 12 year olds) and found that those who were exposed to the program gained more in self–esteem and hope and decreased more in depression than those who did not go through the program. Maria Gambaro and colleagues demonstrated that in comparison with an intervention that did not teach forgiveness, a forgiveness program with young adolescents led to improved self–reliance, increased academic achievement, better attitudes toward teachers and parents, and fewer school conduct problems.
But what about the impact of forgiveness on older adolescents and adults? The evidence base is convincing that they, too, benefit from learning to forgive. Over the past few decades, our research group has conducted many studies with adolescents and adults, taking them through the forgiveness process outlined in the book, Forgiveness Is A Choice. In short, this process involves admitting the hurt, deciding to forgive, working on forgiveness, and experiencing the fruits of forgiveness. There are of course various sub–steps at each of these points, which you can learn more about from the book or on our website. Each person’s forgiveness journey is unique, but several research projects have provided evidence that the steps we use mirror what many people experience as they forgive in natural, non–experimental settings.
Because there are so many experimental studies assessing the effects of forgiveness interventions on these older groups, we offer a summary of their findings and an example of one particularly inspiring project. Our experiments with older adolescents and adults have included people who have experienced some of the deepest hurts in life. We’ve studied the impact of forgiveness on survivors of sexual abuse, those addicted to drugs and alcohol, men whose partners had abortions without their full consent, women in emotionally abusive relationships, and college students raised by rejecting parents. We’ve also studied how forgiveness affects those in particularly challenging situations, such as those recovering from heart disease and those who are terminally ill. First we will look at forgiveness’ effects on mental health variables, such as anxiety and hope, and then at a relatively new line of research looking at the impact of forgiveness on physical health.
Almost every one of our studies on forgiveness and mental health has turned up some indication that offering forgiveness is good for the soul. On the whole, this work demonstrates that forgiveness interventions decrease anger, depression, anxiety, trauma–related symptoms, and grief, and increase hope, quality of life, self–esteem, feelings of mastery, and finding meaning in life. A particularly moving example of this work is Mary Hansen and co–authors’ work on forgiveness among the dying. Patients in end–of–life care went through a 4–week forgiveness intervention and were compared to those who had not yet had the intervention. Those who went through the program demonstrated less anger, more hope, and higher quality of life than those who had not yet had the intervention. What an amazing double gift: to offer forgiveness to an offender in the last days of one’s earthly life, and to receive in return peace of heart and mind for the final journey.
Several aspects of this body of work make it even more remarkable than it seems at first glance. First, in the scientific enterprise, conclusions about a topic under study are bolstered when different research groups produce similar outcomes. Therefore, it is important that we note that our group is not the only one finding that programs based on the forgiveness process lead to improved mental health. Other researchers who implement programs emphasizing the process of forgiveness produce comparable results. It is also significant that when such experiments are conducted outside the US, usually researchers obtain similar results (as did Hui and Chau in Hong Kong, as discussed above). This may mean that the positive effects of forgiveness on psychological health are universal, which from a theological perspective suggests we have been created to be forgiving. Finally, we also note that when researchers follow up their participants months after the studies, they often find that those who went through forgiveness programs still demonstrate the psychological benefits that were evident right after the programs finished. In short, widespread scientific evidence is amassing that forgiveness is a balm for the human psyche that spans time, space, and culture.
The experimental work on forgiveness and mental health has been going on now for over 20 years. Experiments assessing the impact of forgiveness on physical health, however, are relatively new. Even so, they are showing that being merciful to an offender may be as good for the body as it is for the soul. In a 10–session intervention with male cardiac patients, Martina Waltman and her colleagues showed that those going through a forgiveness–oriented intervention showed fewer anger–induced defects in heart functioning than those who participated in an intervention on a different topic. In a laboratory experiment, Charlotte Witvliet and her colleagues showed that when college students were directed to imagine forgiving an offender, they demonstrated better heart functioning and less tension in facial muscles than when they did not imagine forgiving an offender.
Although it is early to draw any firm conclusions about why offering forgiveness might cause better physical health, a recent experiment in doctoral dissertation by Samuel Standard suggests one reason forgiveness may be medicinal. Standard led some of his participants through a forgiveness process and compared them on several health–related measures to other participants who had not yet received the intervention. He found that those who went through the forgiveness process ended up with lower cortisol levels than those who had not yet been exposed to the process. Cortisol is a stress hormone that, if chronically present, can cause major damage to many systems in the body. For example, it has been linked to reduced immune system functioning, high blood pressure, and decreased bone density. In short, it seems that holding a grudge is literally a chronic stressor on even a physiological level!
The science of forgiveness is painting a very clear picture: being merciful to someone who hurt us is good for us, psychologically and physically. In the last article of this series, we will explore why we seem to be built this way. Relying on Orthodox theology, spirituality, and liturgical life, we will attempt to show that the science of forgiveness and the faith of forgiveness are built on one and the same foundation: the life of the self–giving Holy Trinity, Who seeks to heal us body and soul. IC
*In Communion issue 62 carried the article Forgiveness Education: A Prospect for Peace in which the authors described their forgiveness education work in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the inner city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the current article, they broaden their focus, looking at how academic scholarship has helped define forgiveness, and they assess its impact on people, body and soul. Issue 65 will carry the article Forgiving All in the Light of the Resurrection: An Orthodox Theological & Liturgical Approach.
For a copy of the bibliography and complete list of the studies and reports referenced in this article, please send an email to [email protected]
Robert Enright teaches in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Elizabeth Gassin teaches at Olivet Nazarene University. Both are members of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. in Madison, WI. Prof. Gassin is an Orthodox Christian and has written on forgiveness from an Orthodox perspective. More about their work can be found at the International Forgiveness Institute’s website at www.forgiveness-institute.org.
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❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012