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The Science of Forgiveness and Why It's Good For You

A body of research demonstrates that forgiving someone promotes mental health.

Key points

  • A systematic review finds that interventions that promote forgiveness can improve mental health.
  • Some people learn how to forgive in therapy, but others can cultivate forgiveness on their own using evidence-based exercises.
Antonioguillem/Adobe Stock
Source: Antonioguillem/Adobe Stock

Unfortunately, injustice and wrongdoing are part of everyday life. Whether you experience someone cutting to the front of the line at the grocery store or you are the victim of a serious crime, transgression is a part of the human experience.

While it’s natural to get upset when something unfair happens, a growing body of research demonstrates that how we react to injustices affects our overall well-being. Psychologists have shown that holding onto wrongdoing and reliving angry feelings perpetuates negative thoughts and emotions, which ultimately contributes to poor mental health and harms your overall well-being.

Researchers have come up with all sorts of ways to promote forgiveness, primarily through interventions designed to be delivered during counseling sessions.

One systematic review collected data from 15 randomized, controlled studies that measured the effectiveness of these interventions. The analysis found that forgiveness interventions reduce levels of depression, anger, and hostility, along with improving mood and stress levels.

But you don’t need a therapy appointment to start working on forgiveness. A leading forgiveness researcher—psychology professor Everett Worthington—has created self-directed forgiveness interventions designed to help anyone explore their feelings and learn forgiveness.

Worthington's most recent workbook includes exercises that take about two hours to complete. The program is called REACH, and involves the following five stages:

  1. Recall the hurt by remembering what happened to you and deciding that you want to forgive.
  2. Empathize with the offender. Try to understand what the offender may have been thinking or feeling.
  3. Give the altruistic gift of forgiveness. It may be helpful to remember a time that you hurt someone else who forgave you. Offer this same gift to the person who wronged you.
  4. Commit publicly to forgiveness. This could mean writing a note to yourself or the person who wronged you, telling a trusted friend, or talking to the person who wronged you.
  5. Hold onto the forgiveness. You will doubtless remember the injustice and your angry feelings. Remind yourself that you have made a choice to forgive.

Worthington has studied this program across the globe. His most recent study used the two-hour-long workbook to teach forgiveness to more than 7,000 participants in five countries. The study found that the workbook promoted forgiveness and improved symptoms of depression and anxiety among participants compared to those who didn’t complete the workbook.

The take-home message: Forgiveness is not simply a nice thing to do. Learning how to forgive people for transgressions—both large and small—is proven to help improve your mental health and overall well-being.

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