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The Importance of Forgiveness Campaigns

We need to bring forgiveness to our world. Here's one way to do it.

Key points

  • Human beings urgently need greater forgiveness in the world.
  • In a randomized trial, forgiveness workbooks improved depression and anxiety and promoted flourishing.
  • Forgiveness workbooks could be distributed in local, national, and international contexts.
  • Forgiveness campaigns could promote mental health and human flourishing.
Kraken Images Shutterstock
Source: Kraken Images Shutterstock

The Need for Forgiveness

These past months, our country and our world have witnessed numerous forms of conflict and tension, disagreement and violence. It is easy to become angry, and often, there is just cause to do so. Anger itself can be channeled towards justice, but ultimately, seeking justice should involve restoring and promoting the good. To do that effectively, we also need to re-orient our own motivations and actions to seek the good of others, even those who have hurt us. Forgiveness is a practice that brings this about.

Forgiveness involves replacing ill will towards an offender with goodwill. Because of the wrongs we have experienced, our thoughts and feelings about others may be bitter, angry, or even hateful, but with forgiveness—without forgetting or discounting the past offense—we come to want good things for the offenders, to hope that they will flourish.

This doesn’t necessarily mean foregoing just punishment for their wrongdoing; after all, justice and redress might be the very thing needed in order to change, or it might be necessary to keep others safe from harm. Nonetheless, forgiving the wrongdoer does mean that you won’t seek such punishment out of a desire for vengeance and that your pursuit of it will be tempered by a sense of mercy flowing from your desire for his or her good.

Bringing About Forgiveness

For many of us, however, forgiveness is a tall order. Resentment, rumination, and a desire for vengeance often return. Recognizing this, clinical psychologists have in recent decades drawn upon both psychological research and also deep religious and cultural traditions concerning forgiveness to better understand how forgiveness can be brought about.

One such approach is Everett Worthington’s REACH model: Recall the hurt, empathize with the offender, realize forgiveness is an altruistic gift, commit to forgive, and hold on to forgiveness during the return of anger. The effectiveness of this forgiveness model has been studied in dozens of randomized trials in clinical settings. However, truly promoting global forgiveness requires approaches that are more easily disseminated. To try to bring this about, over the past years, we have worked with Dr. Worthington and others to evaluate the effectiveness of a self-directed workbook version of the REACH forgiveness approach.

Our Forgiveness Randomized Trial

Our forgiveness workbook randomized trial was carried about with about 4,500 participants in five relatively high-conflict countries: Colombia, South Africa, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. We’ve given further details of the trial design and the REACH forgiveness model in an earlier post. However, we are happy to now report that the results of that trial were just recently published in BMJ Public Health.

The self-directed forgiveness workbook, which takes about 2-3 hours to complete, did effectively promote forgiveness. But it also effectively reduced depression and anxiety and improved flourishing. Given the important effects of the forgiveness workbook, and its easy, costless dissemination, we believe the workbook could be used as a cornerstone of local, national, and even international campaigns to promote forgiveness. The workbook is now available in translation into the primary languages of more than two-thirds of the world’s population.

Erika / Adobe Stock
Source: Erika / Adobe Stock

Forgiveness Campaigns

We need forgiveness. Right now, much of the news and social media we consume add fuel to the fires of tension and hatred. Some of this reporting is important. But if we are going to bring about greater societal flourishing, we need to re-orient ourselves to seek the good of others, of those with whom we disagree, or by whom we are offended. Bringing about more global forgiveness could be greatly facilitated by campaigns designed to promote forgiveness.

To better understand how to most effectively carry out such campaigns, we have worked with researchers at Universidad del Sinú in Colombia to examine changes in forgiveness, anxiety, depression, and flourishing both before and after a 4-week forgiveness campaign and how such changes potentially varied by campaign activity. While such pre- and post-designs do not have the same level of rigor as randomized trials, they can be helpful in assessing how activities and campaigns might be effective in practice, and the results of this campaign study were just recently published in the International Journal of Public Health.

The forgiveness campaign included 16 different campus-wide activities ranging from the dissemination of the REACH forgiveness workbook to forgiveness movies, webinars, journals, and social media marathons to forgiveness walls and trees and group activities. Participants were free to engage in as many of these as desired, and data was collected on about 2,800 participants. Overall forgiveness, depression, anxiety, and flourishing all improved during the course of the campaign, though there was considerable variability in improvements and in participation by activity.

In general, the greater the number of activities, the greater the improvement. Amongst the various activities, the REACH workbook and the forgiveness animated videos had both high participation rates and strong associations with improvements in forgiveness. More details are available in the paper, but we hope that the study will help inform future forgiveness campaign efforts. And we are continuing our partnership with Andrea Bechara and Maria Fatima Bechara at Universidad del Sinú and their new Flow Center to better understand promoting campus-wide flourishing.

Potential for Future Forgiveness

Given the effectiveness of the REACH workbook intervention and its free accessibility in so many different languages, efforts can, and arguably should, be made to disseminate it. This could be done in the context of psychiatric care and clinical counseling for those struggling with anger who want to forgive but are having trouble doing so. The workbooks could be disseminated at the community level as an important preventive mental health resource. The workbooks could be disseminated within religious communities to help facilitate the forgiveness that such groups already value. The workbooks could be disseminated in schools, universities, and workplaces, possibly accompanied by videos, lectures, and group activities to promote forgiveness. If we truly desire to be oriented towards seeking the good of others, even amidst conflict, we need such efforts to promote forgiveness and thereby bring healing and better flourishing for all.


Ho, M. Y., Worthington, E., Cowden, R., Bechara, A. O., Chen, Z. J., Gunatirin, E. Y., Joynt, S., Khalanskyi, V.V., Korzhov, H., Kurniati, N.M.T., Rodriguez, N., Salnykova, A., Shtanko, L., Tymchenko, S., Voytenko, V.L., Zulkaida, A., Mathur, M. and VanderWeele, T.J. (2024). International REACH Forgiveness Intervention: A multi-site randomised controlled trial. BMJ Public Health, 2:e000072.

Bechara, A.O., Chen, Z.J., Cowden, R.G., Worthington, E.L., Toussaint, L., Rodriguez, N., Murillo, H.G., Ho, M.Y., Mathur, M.B., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2024). Do forgiveness campaign activities improve forgiveness, mental health, and flourishing? International Journal of Public Health, 69:1605341.

Related Articles

The Power of Forgiveness. Psychology Today. Human Flourishing Blog. April 2023.

Balancing Negative News Reporting: Promoting the Good. Psychology Today. Human Flourishing Blog. June 2020.

Long, K., Worthington, E.L., VanderWeele, T.J. and Chen, Y. (2020). Forgiveness of others and subsequent health and well-being in mid-life: a longitudinal study on female nurses. BMC Psychology, 8:104.

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

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