The Health Benefits of Forgiveness

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Kaiser Permanente psychiatrist Mason Turner, MD, says letting go of the resentment you feel about offenses large and small can lead to better health and happier relationships.

Some people see forgiveness as a sign of weakness, but Mason Turner, MD, describes forgiveness as a powerful act that can have lasting health benefits.

Mason Turner, MD

Dr. Turner is Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s director of Outpatient Mental Health and Addiction Medicine. In an interview with Look insideKP, he said the process of forgiveness for a serious offense can be long and difficult, but research shows forgiveness can lower your stress levels, boost your immune system, and help you to be a better friend, family member, and colleague.

How do you define forgiveness?

Forgiveness is acknowledging that there’s been an offense committed against you and then choosing to let go of resentment you may feel towards the person or persons who hurt you. Forgiveness is not saying it was okay — it’s figuring out how to move on.

This can be simply deciding not to fume about someone cutting you off in traffic, or something more complicated, such as forgiving a spouse who was unfaithful.

What are some of the benefits to forgiving someone?

First, consider the costs of not forgiving. Not forgiving someone often leads to hostility towards that person, and your anger and bitterness can seep into other parts of your life. Hostility keeps levels of the stress hormone cortisol elevated in your body, which can trigger a whole range of bad outcomes including high blood pressure, immune system issues, and a tendency to gain weight.

Holding on to hostility also has psychological consequences. It can keep you feeling like a victim, prevent you from moving past a trauma, and lead to anxiety and depression.

Conversely, there’s strong research demonstrating that engaging in forgiveness reduces the cortisol circulating in your body, leading to many benefits including lower blood pressure, cholesterol, heart attack risk, and better sleep. Forgiveness also helps you to regulate your stress response and reduce your overall level of anxiety and depression.

There’s also research showing that forgiveness increases happiness in the relationship where you offered forgiveness and beyond. I think this is because forgiveness often requires soul searching, and that process can help you be more present in other relationships.

How do you see the forgiveness process?

It can be easy to forgive someone quickly for a small offense, but if someone has committed a serious offense against you, the process may take months or even years. It’s not the act of saying words of forgiveness that is beneficial, it’s the intention behind the words.

Before you can forgive, it’s important to have processed or reflected on the offense. What happened, how did it make you feel, and how has the anger or hurt you’ve experienced affected you since?

It can be helpful to try to empathize. If you can put yourself in the shoes of the person who hurt you, you may better understand why they did what they did. This doesn’t excuse the offense or the offender, but it can help you see the person more as a human being who made a mistake.

Acknowledging that you have sometimes hurt other people and have been forgiven can also help you learn to forgive others.

What are some of the challenges to forgiving?

Forgiveness can be tough. You can go through the steps, but actually feeling real forgiveness can be extraordinarily difficult.

The good news is that forgiveness is a practice, so the more you practice the better you get. And the research is clear that forgiving someone can help you move on to live a happier, healthier life.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. Bhuvana. Nallamothu

    Very good article. One of the ways to forgive others is to by pass blame, even by passing the desire to understand the other person. Instead, focus on understanding yourself. As the proverb says, If you are going to pursue revenge, you’d better dig two graves, which is to say that your resentments will destroy you. Thank you.

  2. Forgiveness is to show mercy, meaning you give the other person something that they do not deserve, showing them love.
    God is love.

  3. Thank you for such an informative article. There’s also much help to be found in looking to our own “higher power” – which is God, for myself. The strength he provides is unmatched to any power of our own to overcome our weaknesses, including the tendency to be unforgiving.

  4. It is interesting that your article came out at the same time as the following quote from Mark Twain is going around in my social media: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

    I liked your points about the positive benefits of forgiveness. The act of forgiveness can also give us some amount of power over the situation. Otherwise, powerlessness erodes confidence and self-worth.

  5. Thank you for sharing this information. It’s very timely due to the season. This is something I really need to work on.

  6. You did not cite any studies or research you referred to. You state that “research shows” more than 3 times. I’m not a doctor, but I do like to read about studies and research, rather than take your word for it. It only takes a moment to cite references, especially from someone considered an expert. But hey, I forgive you:)

    • Dolores Radding

      Thanks for your comment. Dr. Turner said these 4 studies capture the essence of the research he referred to in the article.

      Forgiveness, health, and well-being: a review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness.
      Worthington EL Jr, Witvliet CV, Pietrini P, Miller AJ.
      J Behav Med. 2007 Aug;30(4):291-302. Epub 2007 Apr 24. Review.

      Forgiveness in health research and medical practice.
      Worthington EL Jr, van Oyen Witvliet C, Lerner AJ, Scherer M.
      Explore (NY). 2005 May;1(3):169-76. Review.

      When forgiving enhances psychological well-being: the role of interpersonal commitment.
      Karremans JC, Van Lange PA, Ouwerkerk JW, Kluwer ES.
      J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 May;84(5):1011-26.

      Forgiveness and its associations with prosocial thinking, feeling, and doing beyond the relationship with the offender.
      Karremans JC, Van Lange PA, Holland RW.
      Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2005 Oct;31(10):1315-26.

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