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Grudge Match: Can Unforgiveness Be Bad For Our Health?

Some thoughts on forgiveness, the Day of Atonement, and a chaotic world.

(Co-written with Lee Daniel Kravetz, writer and journalist)

The holiday of Yom Kippur may have come early this year, but it seems like no matter when it arrives, there’s something happening in the world that’s nearly impossible to forgive. This past Saturday, as roughly 14 million Jews observed the holiest day of the year, taking stock of their lives, admitting their faults, and asking God and other human beings to forgive them, the world grappled with the reality of chemical weapons being deployed against more than a thousand people in Syria. The perpetrators have yet to admit to their crimes. Can survivors—let alone the world—forgive this crime and others like it? On a more personal level, what of the lesser crimes and tragedies that befall us in our daily lives?

According to science, our inscription into the Book of Long Life—the ultimate outcome of Yom Kippur for believers—may depend on our ability to forgive more than most of us might think.

Whether we’re Jewish or not, whether we believe in God or not, it’s worth stopping to reflect on the value of forgiveness. In some sense, forgiveness is the bedrock of a civil society. The most obvious alternative to forgiveness would be a never-ending cycle of resentment and revenge, not exactly a recipe for long and happy lives. History reveals no shortage of violent examples of such cycles—whether we’re talking about the generations of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, or classic conflicts among Serbs and Croats, Protestant and Catholic Irish, or Northern and Southern Sudanese.

It’s easy to see that grudges aren’t healthy on a societal scale. But what about in our own lives? Technically, psychologists refer to grudge-holding and revenge-seeking as unforgiveness, and science is beginning to show that it may be bad for our health.

Several years ago, researchers with the National Comorbidity Study asked nearly 10,000 U.S. residents, “Would you say this is true or false? I’ve held grudges against people for years.” Slightly more than 6,500 people responded to the question. Writing in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology in 2010, researchers Erick Messias, Anil Saini, Philip Sinato, and Stephen Welch report that those who said they tended to hold grudges reported higher rates of heart disease and cardiac arrest, elevated blood pressure, stomach ulcers, arthritis, back problems, headaches, and chronic pain than those who didn’t share this tendency. Though most scientists note that much more research is needed on the subject, this isn’t the only study linking unforgiveness to health problems.

It appears that nursing grudges may be bad for us. To avoid misunderstandings, however, we want to make clear what we’re not saying. We’re not implying that victims of crimes, traumas, and atrocities have an obligation to forgive their victimizers. Most experts on the topic of forgiveness agree that nobody should (or even can) be forced to forgive. To do so would be to further victimize the victim. But, to the degree that we naturally feel ready to let go of grudges, it may ultimately be beneficial for us to do so. This isn’t something we do for those who wronged us; it’s something we do for ourselves when and if we’re ready.

For religious believers, however, Yom Kippur isn’t as much about granting forgiveness to others as it is about receiving forgiveness from God. Interestingly, there may be a link between feeling forgiven by the Divine and being willing to let go of grudges ourselves. In a 2003 study by Neal Krause and Christopher Ellison in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, researchers interviewed 1,500 older adults (age 66 and older) from across the United States, all of whom had considered themselves Christian. Not surprisingly, the findings showed in general that those who tended to practice forgiveness reported greater personal well-being, including lower levels of depression and physical health complaints as well as higher levels of life satisfaction. But the study’s results became far more nuanced when the researchers examined two different kinds of forgiveness.

Experts sometimes distinguish forgiveness that is given unconditionally from forgiveness that is given only when the wrongdoer displays contrition by apologizing or paying compensation. Krause and Ellison found that unconditional forgiveness was associated with higher levels of well-being, but forgiveness that required the wrongdoer’s contrition was actually associated with lower levels of well-being. Though the reasons for this finding are not fully understood, it makes sense: By requiring the offender’s contrition, we’re letting a person who harmed us decide if or when we can benefit from forgiveness. That’s giving the wrongdoer a lot of control over our lives.

This is where belief in God’s forgiveness, a factor common to many religions, comes into the picture. Krause and Ellison found that participants who believed God had forgiven them for their own wrongdoings throughout life were more likely to offer others unconditional forgiveness than participants who believed they hadn’t received God’s forgiveness. In short, forgiveness may be a kind of gift that keeps on giving. Believing we’ve received it ourselves makes us more likely to give it to others without requiring anything from them.

It is intriguing to think that, just as unforgiveness can initiate a cycle of revenge-seeking, perhaps receiving forgiveness can initiate a cycle of forgiveness-giving. Forgiveness may be a gift we can give to ourselves and to the world around us.

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