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The Mental Health Benefits of Forgiveness

Letting go of ill will has marked benefits for mental health and well-being.

Key points

  • Forgiveness is much more easily discussed than accomplished.
  • New research demonstrates that forgiveness improves mental health and well-being.
  • The action of forgiving is beneficial in helping to reduce anxiety and depression and improve sleep.
  • Forgiveness is a skill that can be learned and practiced.
Source: CCXpistiavos/Pixabay
Source: CCXpistiavos/Pixabay

Holding onto resentments is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. — a 12-step program saying

The above statement (variously misattributed to the Buddha and Nelson Mandela, among others) vividly depicts the self-destructiveness of a common emotion. Essentially, resentment is old anger or ill will kept alive by the reliving of past perceived injuries, slights, or injustices in one’s thoughts. When you hold on to resentments, whether toward a person, group, or institution, you hurt yourself much more than anyone else.

Being caught in the grip of resentment creates suffering as you become attached to the source of that resentment—giving it power over you as the intense emotions eat away at your mental-emotional well-being like acid, and the thoughts that drive those emotions take up space in your mind, stealing your precious time, energy, and attention.

The antidote (so to speak) for resentment is forgiveness. Of course, forgiving is much easier said than done, but new research provides important potential motivation to engage in this process—by demonstrating that forgiveness improves mental health and well-being.

The results of this study were recently presented at an interdisciplinary conference on forgiveness at Harvard University. Researchers randomly assigned 4,598 participants from five countries into groups. One set received a forgiveness workbook with exercises they completed on their own, such as: 1) Write the story of a specific hurt you’d like to forgive. 2) Write it again, from the perspective of an observer, without emphasizing the negative qualities of the perpetrator or how you were or felt victimized. 3) Identify at least three differences between these two versions.

Those in the control group had to wait two weeks before receiving the workbook. When the two weeks were up, researchers found that those participants who had completed the workbook felt more forgiving than those in the control group, as well as reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.[1]

These findings are consistent with those of other studies on forgiveness, which have found the action of forgiving to be beneficial to mental health in ways that help to lower stress and improve sleep. [2] [3]

While it can be difficult to forgive even minor transgressions, forgiveness is a skill that can be learned and practiced.

What does forgiveness really mean?

To forgive is to let go of ill will, resentments, or grudges you have toward others—people, groups, or institutions. Many people naturally struggle with the idea of forgiving others whom they feel have wronged them. While it’s common for forgiveness to be confused with forgetting, they’re two very different things. Forgiveness is not about forgetting a hurtful or unjust action or pretending it didn’t happen, it’s not excusing or condoning such action, and it does not mean reconciliation.

To forgive means to consciously remember what happened and intentionally let go of the pain attached to it and the suffering that pain creates. Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself—it’s more for the person doing the forgiving than the party being forgiven. You can extend forgiveness to others whether or not they admit to their part in the event. Keep in mind that learning and practicing self-forgiveness is as important and as valuable as forgiving others.

Another 12-step-adjacent saying is that when you resent someone, you become their slave—mentally and emotionally—as repetitive, ruminative, and sometimes obsessive thoughts consume your attention and gas up emotions that crowd out other possibilities. Forgiveness effectively frees the victim from the offender.

Through the act of forgiveness, we cleanse ourselves of the pain and anger that kept us stuck in the past. This frees us to be more mentally, emotionally, and spiritually present in the here and now and creates more space for contentment, peace of mind, and peace of heart. As psychologist and author John Friel, Ph.D., has put it, forgiveness is the willingness to give up all hope for a better past.

Copyright 2023 Dan Mager, MSW


[1] Ho, M. Y., Worthington, E., Cowden, R., Bechara, A. O., Chen, Z. J., Gunatirin, E. Y., … VanderWeele, T. (2023, March 3). International REACH Forgiveness Intervention: A Multi-Site Randomized Controlled Trial.

[2] Toussaint LL, Shields GS, Slavich GM. Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process Study. Ann Behav Med. 2016 Oct;50(5):727-735. doi: 10.1007/s12160-016-9796-6. PMID: 27068160; PMCID: PMC5055412.

[3] Toussaint L, Gall AJ, Cheadle A, Williams DR. Editor choice: Let it rest: Sleep and health as positive correlates of forgiveness of others and self-forgiveness. Psychol Health. 2020 Mar;35(3):302-317. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2019.1644335. Epub 2019 Jul 31. PMID: 31364412; PMCID: PMC6992518.

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