Forgiving Is Good for You

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
December 19, 2023
Forgiving Is Good for You

If you forgive people, you can learn to avoid grudges. Do it for yourself. Cultivating forgiveness is a kind of protection against mental and other health problems.

Instead of stewing when you feel someone wrongs you, forgive them. You will enhance your well-being and health, studies suggest.

Research demonstrates that conflict in your inner circle is rough on your body and mental health and may be especially true as you age. Plenty of evidence also indicates that forgiveness can protect you.


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Forgiving is good for everyone

Maybe you’re thinking, “It’s just not for me.” In a meta-analysis of studies around the world covering more than 26,000 people — including students, combat veterans, and divorced mothers — researchers concluded that forgiveness improves one’s outlook and lowers stress on your heart, reducing symptoms like high blood pressure. Other research backs up the idea that forgiveness is good for you, no matter who you are.

Forgiveness may become an attitude or skill you can use in many situations with many people. Do it for yourself. In one example, a study of people aged 50 and up in Detroit, people who said someone hurt them were more likely to report health problems. The health effects were more severe if the transgressor wasn’t their partner or spouse (towards whom, the researchers suggested, they’re probably more forgiving).

For people who found it easy to forgive, the hurt had to be more severe to affect their health. It also didn’t matter who had hurt them, as they could still forgive.

What if your life has been difficult?

You might think, “Easy for you to say; my life has been too rough to go around forgiving.” On the contrary, forgiveness may help put you on an even playing field with people who haven’t had as many troubles, erasing the link between stress and illness.

That might be because forgiving people adopt better coping skills when they feel stressed, or their bodies may respond less to a negative event.

“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Karen Swartz, MD, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Chronic anger affects your heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response. Those bodily reactions feed depression, heart disease, and type 1 and type 2 diabetes, among other illnesses.

Can you really learn forgiveness?

Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, reports that depressive symptoms dropped 40 percent after Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland, who had lost a family member during The Troubles, had forgiveness training.  

Luskin has drawn inspiration from a book by the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, “The Art of Happiness.” One of the best ways to guarantee unhappiness, the Dalai Lama explained, is “walking around with an unresolved grudge against something,” Luskin says. “Another one that leads to unhappiness is bitterness, that people feel life hasn’t been fair to them. And a third that we see all the time is just self-pity, like poor me, it didn’t work out the way I hoped."

If you tend to hang on to grudges, you can train yourself to stop that habit, Swartz says. It’s your choice: Do you want to dwell on hurts or try to see the good in others? You can take a 13-question quiz to assess your ability to forgive here

Forgiveness does not mean condoning, forgetting, excusing bad behavior, or denying or minimizing your feelings. It simply means that you don’t dwell on those feelings.  

"There are some things that are simply too horrible to forgive and to forget — like violence against a child, abuse,” Schwartz says. “Forgiving isn’t giving absolution, where you say: ‘It’s done, we never have to think about it again.’ If someone’s done something really thoughtless, you think about them differently. You trust them differently. You have a different relationship with them.”

Let’s say your husband gambled away your savings and is now fighting a serious cancer, leaving you responsible for huge bills. Your goal is to let go of the pain — because that’s better for you. It really doesn’t matter what he “deserves.”  

The core of religion of all kinds is compassion, and each tradition offers different methods. Prayer or meditation can take the edge off. You can try a ritual, such as writing a letter to your husband expressing your hurt and anger, burning the letter, then writing another expressing forgiveness.

If you prefer speech to writing, you can tell a confidante, not necessarily your husband, about your forgiveness.

Don’t expect an apology or specific changes in him. You’re setting yourself up for more disappointment and hurt. You will also need to forgive yourself. Negative thoughts — like “How did I pick this creep?” or “He did it because I’m fat.” — are hard on your body, too.

You can forgive him and stop loving him as your husband. Divorce doesn’t mean you are carrying around the feeling that he’s a monster.

It’s important to monitor where you let your mind go. Your body will respond to those thoughts. Negative thoughts make your body tense. That tension, Swartz said, will “spill over into your thoughts about lots of other relationships,” making you generally suspicious of everyone. 


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December 19, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN