Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.

Media Spotlight


Forgiveness and Your Health

Can being able to forgive improve heart functioning?

Posted Mar 02, 2015

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. -- Martin Luther King Jr. 

What is forgiveness

Though it can be defined in different ways, forgiveness is usually described as "the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well." Despite being a common theme in theology, sociology, and law, there has also been a large number of research studies looking at the psychological value of forgiveness. Whether this involves our forgiving ourselves, forgiving someone else, or being forgiven, the impact that forgiveness can have on personal relationships and emotional health can be profound.

According to a 2012 study looking at a national sample of more than 1200 older Americans, conditional forgiveness of others emerged as a significant predictor of  longevity. In other words, failing to forgive other people may well be considered a health risk. Forgiveness can also play a strong role in family relationships and the physical health of family members.  

But there can also be different levels of forgiveness. Trait forgiveness, for example, occurs across different relationships, offenses, and circumstances while episodic forgiveness involves a single act of forgiveness for a specific offense. There is also dyadic forgiveness which involves forgiving a relationship partner (such as a husband or wife) for serious infractions. Most studies looking at  forgiveness and health usually focus on trait or dyadic forgiveness since the impact on long-term health is easier to measure.  

Over the past decade, researchers have identified different physiological effects that trait and episodic forgiveness can have on the human body. In a 2001 study examining the use of  forgiveness imagery to deal with hurtful memories, subjects imagining themselves forgiving people who offended them experienced lower heartrate and mean arterial pressure (MAP) than subjects who imagined themselves holding a grudge. Unforgiving thoughts also produced  increased galvanic skin response and a higher EMG response. Other studies have found lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure related to forgiveness, particularly for women, as well as a strong link between forgiveness and self-reported health problems.

A new study published in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice provides further evidence of the value of forgiveness in relieving heart disease. A team of researchers led by Frank Fincham of Florida State University examined ninety couples recruited from the Tallahassee, Florida area to measure the physiology of forgiveness in marriage. On average, the couples had been married for twelve years and had no history of health problems. All of the test subjects were tested on different physiological measures including heart rate, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, cardiac workload (oxygen consumption), and mean arterial pressure. 

The research subjects also completed psychometric tests measuring dyadic and trait forgiveness as well as relationship satisfaction. The trait forgiveness questionnaire included items such as "I tend to get over it quickly when someone hurts my feelings" while dyadic forgiveness was measured with items such as "When my partner wrongs me, I just accept their humanness, flaws and failures." Relationship satisfaction was measured with items including "I have a warm and comfortable relationship with my partner."  

As expected,  trait forgiveness and dyadic forgiveness were strong predictors of  different measures of cardiovascular health for both husbands and wives. Even when marital satisfaction was taken into account, people scoring high on the two forgiveness measures had lower heart rates, blood pressure, and better cardiovascular efficiency than subjects with low forgiveness scores. When husbands and wives were compared directly,  the relationship between trait forgiveness and health tended to be greater for husbands than for wives though the results were significant for both sexes. 

So what do these results suggest? As Frank Fincham and his co-authors point out in their conclusions, cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, and stroke are major causes of death worldwide. For that reason, it is essential that we learn to understand how psychological factors can influence cardiovascular health.   

Though having a strong tendency to forgive appears to be strongly related to improved heart functioning, this study only tested research subjects at one point in time without looking at how forgiveness can evolve over time. Still, the effects of forgiveness on heart functioning appears even greater than many of the preventive medical routines recommended by cardiologists for heart patients. This definitely bears following up in future research studies.

In the meantime, consider the health value of simple forgiveness as opposed to letting that resentment over past offenses fester. The life you save could be your own.