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Forgiveness: An Important Aspect of Flourishing

The science of forgiveness points to its importance for well-being.

One of the projects of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University has been researching the topic of forgiveness and its importance for a flourishing life. Some of our empirical work has explored how forgiveness can powerfully shape health and well-being. For example, our research indicates that forgiveness reduces subsequent depression and anxiety by about 15-20%, when controlling for other variables, and suggests that forgiveness is a freeing and healing alternative to maladaptive responses like rumination and suppression.

Forgiveness, understood as the replacing of ill-will with good-will towards the offender, does not imply condoning the action or not demanding justice. Forgiving simply means desiring the ultimate good of the offender, and this can be done without excusing the wrongful action and while still pursuing a just outcome.

Our program’s work has explored how forgiveness might be conceived of as a public health issue. The experience of being wronged is common, and the effects of forgiveness on health are profound. Since there are now easy to use resources that can help people to forgive when they want to forgive, but are struggling to do so (see more below on forgiveness workbooks), we believe that more public attention should be given to this topic.

Our work on forgiveness in fact recently captured the attention of Harvard Men’s Health Watch and they published a popular piece on forgiveness based on our work. An article, written by Professor VanderWeele, “Is Forgiveness a Public Health Issue?”, which also addresses some of the ethical issues around forgiveness, is publicly available at this link.

New Templeton Funding for a Randomized Trial

And our work on the importance of forgiveness continues on. We are happy to announce that we recently received funding from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to launch, in collaboration with Everett Worthington, a randomized trial of forgiveness workbook interventions in six countries around the world (Columbia, South Africa, Ghana, Ukraine, Indonesia, and China). The study will examine how this forgiveness approach might work globally since most of the research to date has been within the United States.

The study will take place during 2020 and, if successful, it could potentially launch the beginning of a global forgiveness campaign. Stay tuned as our research in this area and others progresses.


You can sign up here for a monthly research e-mail from the Human Flourishing Program, or click here to follow us on Twitter. The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University aims to contribute to, bring together, and disseminate knowledge from various academic fields on topics fundamental to human flourishing.


VanderWeele, T.J. (2018). Is forgiveness a public health issue? American Journal of Public Health, 108:189-190.