S T A N F O R D M E D I C I N E
Volume 16 Number 4, SUMMER 1999
the art and science of forgiveness
If you feel good but want to feel even better,
try forgiving someone.
BY FREDERIC LUSKIN, PHD
FOR CENTURIES THE WORLD'S RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL TRADITIONS HAVE RECOMMENDED THE USE OF FORGIVENESS AS A BALM FOR HURT OR ANGRY FEELINGS. Psychotherapists have worked to help their clients to forgive and some have written about the importance of forgiveness. Until recently, however, the scientific literature has not had much to say about the effect of forgiveness. But that's starting to change. * While the scientific study of forgiveness is just beginning -- the relevant intervention research having been conducted only during the past 10 years -- when taken together, the work so far demonstrates the power of forgiveness to heal emotional wounds and hints that forgiveness may play a role in physical healing as well.
What is intriguing about this r esearch is that even people who are not depressed or particularly anxious can obtain the improved emotional and psychological functioning that comes from learning to forgive. This suggests that forgiveness may enable people who are functioning adequately to feel even better. While the research is limited, a picture is emerging that forgiveness may be important not just as a religious practice but as a component of a comprehensive vision of health.
Stanford University is the home of likely the largest intervention study to date on the training of interpersonal forgiveness. The Stanford Forgiveness Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, is evaluating a six-session 90-minute forgiveness-training program that I developed for my 1998 dissertation study. This study demonstrated that normal college students could become significantly less angry and hurt, feel more hopeful, spiritually content and self-efficacious about managing their emotions and also become more forgiving after a six-hour training session. Moreover, the psychosocial gains were stable over a 10-week follow-up period.
The new study, with Stanford University professor of education Carl Thoresen, PhD, as principal investigator, will allow us to measure the effect of the forgiveness training on a broader range of psychological variables and some physiological variables as well. It will also investigate what influence, if any, religious affiliation and spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation have on the participant's willingness and ability to forgive. We teach the forgiveness training in groups of 12 to 15 participants and do so through the use of lecture, discussion, guided imagery and homework practice.
Published studies on forgiveness have shown the importance of forgiveness training on coping with a variety of psychologically painful experiences. Studies have been conducted with adolescents who felt neglected by their parents, with women who were abused as children, with elderly women who felt hurt or uncared for, with males who disagreed with their female partners' decisions to have abortions and with college students who had been hurt. These studies showed that when given forgiveness training of varying lengths and intensities, participants could become less hurt and become more able to forgive their offenders.
The frontier for forgiveness research is to look at what effect forgiveness may have on a subject's physical health and well-being. To date, there have been no scientific studies that conclusively demonstrate that forgiveness improves or worsens physical health. However, the initial results of some studies funded by the Templeton Foundation (which has launched an initiative to investigate forgiveness) suggest that when people experience forgiveness, there are positive changes in measures of participants' cardiovascular and nervous systems.
While there is no direct evidence, there are a number of lines of research that suggest that learning to forgive can be predictive of improved health outcomes. There are some studies that show that mismanaged anger and hostility is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In both my dissertation study and the study on men whose partners had abortions, the forgiveness training resulted in a significant lowering of anger levels. What was interesting about the dissertation study was that the participants were able to significantly reduce both long-term and short-term anger levels even when the baseline levels were in the age-adjusted normal range.
One explanation for why forgiveness may be beneficial for physical health is that it deepens and promotes interpersonal relationships. Another possibility is that forgiveness is a form of religious expression or may be an indication of a positive spiritual experience. There exist a number of studies that attest to the beneficial effect that positive relationships and good social ties have on indices of physical health. There are other studies that implicate social support with decreased mortality. There is also a group of studies that demonstrate that people who have strong religious affiliations, or use religious coping, have de-creased mortality.
Forgiveness may be viewed as an analogous example of the ability to see one's life through a positive or healing lens. While the research is only suggestive, it may be that all of us could benefit from training in managing life's inevitable hurts and using forgiveness to make peace with the past. In this way, forgiveness may be, as the religious traditions have been claiming all along, a rich path to greater peace and understanding that also has both psychosocial and physiological value.
FREDERIC LUSKIN, PHD, A POSTDOCTORAL FELLOW AT THE STANFORD CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN DISEASE PREVENTION, SERVES AS DIRECTOR OF THE STANFORD FORGIVENESS PROJECT.