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The Unique Power of Forgiveness on Your Health

Forgiveness takes patience and practice, but it’s worth it. Research supports the positive impact of practicing unconditional forgiveness of others on our own health.

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“Forgive and forget.”

If only it were that simple.

Though it’s sound advice, the saying implies that forgiveness is an easy, one-shot deal. So when you’re still experiencing anger or pain long after you’ve been hurt by someone, it’s easy to question why you’re not “over it” yet.

In mindfulness tradition, forgiveness of others is the ongoing practice of freeing yourself and others from suffering through the practice of compassion. It is recognizing that the pain brought upon you by someone else stems from his or her own deep suffering. As described by Thich Nhat Hanh, it is the understanding that while we are the victims of others who cause us suffering, they themselves are also victims of suffering. Though it never justifies abuse or violence, understanding that suffering stems from suffering can help ease the forgiving process and gradually offer spiritual and emotional freedom to the forgiver.

In recent research, forgiveness has been found to support psychological relief such as reduced anxiety, anger, and depression. In science publications, forgiveness is usually defined as the process of giving up revenge, resentment, and harsh judgment against a person who caused hurt and instead responding with kindness, compassion, and generosity. It may occur with or without direct reconciliation between the offender and the offended.

In both Eastern philosophical practice and in clinical study, forgiveness is acknowledged as a process. Sometimes it’s quick and sometimes it takes a lifetime. What varies greatly are views on how and why we should forgive. As the founder of the Forgiveness Project, Marina Cantacuzino, discovered through years of gathering stories, there are those of us who see forgiveness as a noble act and there are those that “laugh it out of court.”

What’s the benefit of forgiving versus carrying a grudge?

The Physiology of Forgiveness

In research published in 2011 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers explored the link between forgiveness and longevity in a novel three-year longitudinal study. Over 1,000 American men and women averaging 75 years of age were interviewed about their philosophies and practices of forgiveness of others. Among a few measures, conditional forgiveness was assessed by level of agreement with statements such as “Before I can forgive others, they must apologize to me for the things they have done” and “Before I can forgive others, they must promise not to do the same thing again.”

Results of this initial study revealed that when controlling for variables such as religion and health and extremity of circumstance, conditional forgiveness was a statistically significant predictor of mortality. In other words, choosing to forgive someone only when certain conditions are met was linked with increased risk of death during the study’s duration.

There are a number of reasons why this could be the case, which requires further study, but researchers Toussaint, Owen, and Cheadle suspect it could have to do with the psychological and physical impact of waiting. Prerequisites for forgiveness are often not possible: the offending party may no longer be alive, may no longer be reachable, or may not know or agree with the offended party’s perspective. With more digging, the research team found three statistically significant mediating factors between conditional forgiveness and mortality: (1) depressive affect (2) depressive somatic symptoms, and (3) physical health, the strongest mediator.

That is, forgiving only when particular conditions are met could have a negative impact on physical health, which in turn may have an impact on mortality. Unconditional forgiveness—the practice of forgiving with compassion—may reduce depression levels and may also modulate physical wellbeing that offers protection against mortality.

Knowing this, how can we learn to practice unconditional forgiveness?

Practicing Forgiveness

In a 2008 study led by Doug Oman, Ph.D., at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, meditation-based practices were linked with reduced stress and enhanced forgiveness among college students. During the eight-week study, Oman’s team guided students in Eight-Point Program practices by Eknath Easwaran and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction practices developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

The primary intention of this study was to offer stress-reducing fundamentals of mindfulness to students, what Buddhist scholar Nyanaponika Thera describes as “knowing the mind, shaping the mind, and freeing the mind.” Results of the study supported not only the primary hypothesis of reduced stress in practitioners, but also strongly supported the secondary hypothesis that forgiveness would be positively influenced by daily mindfulness practice.

Remember, forgiveness is a process that is unique to the individual, but there are universal practices that may help ease resistance to forgiving. While managing extreme emotion or circumstance is always recommended for a client-therapist setting, these practices may be helpful to the individual:

General Meditation: Oman’s aforementioned study revealed reductions in stress and increases in willingness to forgive through basic stress-management meditation (MMS) practices like attention to the breath, body, and mind. For a simple guided practice, try this simple meditation to relieve stress.

Forgiveness Guided Visualization: Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of Plum Village, offers guided meditation and breath practice to support forgiveness through compassion. For those of us that may be “angry sons and daughters” (or angry friends or partners), Hanh offers gentle words at the end of this video to greet your anger and develop compassion toward self and other. In a quiet, seated position, envision the person that may have caused you pain and repeat silently as much as feels right for you:

Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old child, breathing out I hold that five year-old-child in me with tenderness.

Breathing in I see my father as a five-year-old boy, breathing out I smile to my father as a five-year-old boy.

Related: Try loving-kindness meditation practice with the video below.

Remember to be patient with yourself, as forgiveness is an ongoing practice.

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