Psychology of Forgiveness: 10+ Fascinating Research Findings

the psychology of forgivenessIn life, we can hold on to a lot of anger and resentment.

These grievances only offer a lifetime of hurt and should be dealt with.

Despite the enormity of suffering a person may have faced, it is possible to let this pain go, and forgive.

Forgiveness is not only good for the soul, but it also has positive benefits to our mental and even physical wellbeing (Luskin, 2003).

“Pain in life is inevitable. Suffering, on the other hand, is optional,” writes compassion and mindfulness expert Dr. Shauna Shapiro.

In this article, we explore the research behind forgiveness and look at tools to help us along the journey.

The Science Behind Forgiveness: 10+ Findings

Dr. Frederic Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, describes in his book, Forgive for Good, both his personal and academic journey into forgiveness (Luskin, 2003).

When Luskin began his research, there were few studies in the field of forgiveness and limited knowledge of the tools that could help those who had suffered the most.

In the absence of clear guidance, Luskin began his work with several untested assumptions:

  1. The process of forgiveness remains the same, irrespective of the offense
  2. Forgiveness is more about our past than our present life
  3. Forgiveness should be about all grievances – big and small

Forgiveness is a process. And while the duration and difficulty will vary significantly, it can be equally applied to all levels of pain – whether the result of someone being rude to us in a shop, a life cut short, or a partner cheating.

For one of his studies, he recruited students between 18 and 30 who wished to attend forgiveness training to resolve personal issues. Split into groups, he interviewed them before and after being given the training.

Results confirmed that forgiveness training helps people:

  • Feel significantly less hurt
  • Learn techniques for forgiving specific and more general resentment
  • Forgive the particular person that had caused them pain

Overall, findings suggested that learning to forgive improves psychological and physiological wellness and offers protection against future upsets. Forgiveness training also leads individuals to become emotionally stronger, experience greater confidence, and be increasingly optimistic (Luskin, 2003).

Such findings were echoed in Luskin’s later work. As part of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, and working with adults between 25 and 50 years of age, forgiveness training was also found to reduce stress and improve overall health.

More recently, as part of the Northern Ireland HOPE Project, Luskin worked with families whose loved ones were murdered during the political troubles of Northern Ireland.

One of the groups recruited included women whose sons had been tragically killed, often shot for no other reason than their religious or political upbringing.

Understandably, these women–even years after their son’s death–were suffering extreme pain and anger and felt their healing had been largely ignored.

The forgiveness training offered by the team at Stanford had incredible, life-changing results.

On arrival, the women averaged a hurt score of 8.5 out of 10. By the time they left, their self-reported hurt had reduced to 3.5. Also, longer-term, the women reported fewer feelings of depression and increased optimism.

While previously entirely consumed by anger, hurt, and grief, they left still mourning their loved ones, but with a measure of forgiveness and the ability to cope.

If I develop bad feelings toward those who make me suffer, this will only destroy my own peace of mind. But if I forgive, my mind becomes calm.

Dalai Lama

The power of forgiveness, while at times painfully difficult, can be life-changing and life-affirming (McCullough et al., 2020).

 

Positive Psychology Research

forgivenessScience has confirmed that learning to forgive is vital to both our mental and physical wellbeing.

Indeed, increasing positive emotions–while reducing negative ones, such as blame and anger–benefits our cardiovascular health and reduces ill-health (Tennen & Affleck, 1990; Miller, Smith, Turner, Guijarro, & Hallet, 1996).

Forgiveness is essential for a fully functional society and has considerable personal benefits–increasing our potential for making connections with others and having a more positive, happier outlook on life.

Crucially, as we have already seen, forgiveness can be learned and used in many different contexts, including:

  • Children of neglectful parents
  • Older people experiencing lack of care
  • Women abused as children
  • People whose partners had been unfaithful

One of the earliest studies focusing specifically on the link between forgiveness and health benefits found that even thinking about forgiving an offender improved people’s cardiovascular and nervous system (Witvliet, Ludwig, & Laan, 2001).

Furthermore, by mentally switching between thoughts of goodwill and holding a grudge, blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension increased, while feelings of control (linked to mental toughness) reduced.

Also, Luskin reported that the mental benefits of forgiveness training–including increased optimism, self-confidence, compassion, reduced stress, and spiritual inclinations–were still present six months after training (Luskin, 2003).

Though the number of studies is small, there does not appear, medically speaking, to be a downside to forgiveness. Elsewhere, work is underway to manage stress responses in premenopausal women and lower blood pressure in cardiac patients.

It is clear from the ongoing research that forgiveness–of both the day-to-day, incidental issues, and longer-term grudges–offers prolonged physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.

 

5 Skills for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is perhaps the most challenging of all the resources available to us–and the most transformational,” writes Shauna Shapiro in Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness.

Forgiveness is not one skill, but best served by several combined, including acceptance, shifting perspectives, emotional regulation, compassion, and radical responsibility.

Finding the right balance helps you to forgive not only those you have grievances against but also the daily annoyances we face. It can lead you to be more compassionate, satisfied, and feel your life is complete.

Shapiro addresses each of the skills in turn (Shapiro, 2020):

 

1. Acceptance

Acceptance is not about defeat or resignation; it is about accepting what has happened.

After all, while change is inevitable, suffering is the result of our resistance to it.

Acceptance shifts the balance. Your view of what is happening alters, you “separate the pain that is inevitable from the suffering that is optional.” (Shapiro, 2020).

To forgive, you must accept the past. That is not to say you like it, or that it was within your power to stop it, but it has happened–and cannot be undone.

 

2. Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation helps you manage your emotions and avoid “hijacking” your amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for initiating your fight or flight reaction.

Research has shown that you cannot suppress negative emotions. And indeed, if it appears you have (based on your behavior), your limbic system tells a different story and remains highly active.

Instead, it is better to become aware of your emotions, recognizing and labeling them, and interrupting and calming your response.

I feel tense,” “My heart is beating so fast,” or “I am scared.”

Naming emotions provides space, and emotional regulation helps you identify and learn from your feelings. This is important for forgiveness, where you need to be aware of the hurt, anger, and grief you may be facing.

 

3. Shifting perspectives

Shifting perspectives can help you stand back and observe your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. You cease to be a slave to your selfish narrative.

An awareness of the sensation is very different from experiencing it and can provide the psychological distancing needed to move forward.

Observing anger is not the same as being angry.

Mindfulness practices can provide a practical path to shifting your perspective and seeing that your experiences do not define who you are.

 

4. Empathy and compassion

Empathy and compassion help you feel what another is experiencing and can be incredibly helpful on the path to forgiveness.

While empathy is powerful at understanding the pain of another, compassion encourages you to take action needed to reduce that suffering.

 

5. Radical responsibility

Radical responsibility requires being accountable for yourself, owning your actions, feelings, thoughts, and behavior.

Rather than react with fear or running away, denying you have any power over what is happening, you must take action to avoid recurring, harmful behavior.

You must recognize behaviors that are unhealthy–without judgment–and take responsibility.

 

Benefits of Forgiveness

benefits of forgivenessIntegrating these five skills creates an environment for forgiveness.

The process does not attempt to ignore suffering–your own or others–but instead strengthens your capacity to remove emotional barriers to finding happiness.

And forgiveness provides vital benefits to your mental and physical wellbeing, summarized as follows (Luskin, 2003):

A reduction in:

  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Stress
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Pain

Increases and improvements in:

  • Hope
  • Compassion
  • Self-confidence
  • Immune response

Forgiveness provides us with “a powerful path to reduce our suffering and bring greater dignity and harmony to our life,” writes Shapiro.

Recently research has begun to uncover the links between “emotional stability, agreeableness, a focus on others, and religious commitment” (McCullough et al., 2020). If associated with an apology, signs of remorse, and restitution, forgiveness can be adopted more easily, and provide effective relief from hurt.

 

Tools for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is most successful when you know how you feel, you know what was wrong about what happened, and you can share your experiences with a couple of trusted people (Luskin, 2003).

To begin forgiveness, you need to take responsibility for how you feel. That is not to say that you must like what has happened, and it is certainly not the case that what took place was your fault.

Instead, you can regain control of how you react, in terms of your emotions and behavior.

This is your life, and that should not be taken away from you.

Luskin uses a three-step process to take responsibility for feeling by learning how to relax and use good feelings to focus on the positive (modified from Luskin, 2016):

 

Step One – Dust off your remote control

Try to remember that pain is an integral part of life and that you can still appreciate the good while hurting.

While we typically overly focus on what is wrong in our lives, there is much for which we should be grateful.

A rude comment by someone in a shop should not outweigh the beauty of a sunrise, or the joy in seeing our child doing something new.

Luskin uses the TV remote as a metaphor for choosing the channel we watch on a day to day basis. Rather than remain on the grievance channel, we must regularly tune in to what is right in our lives: love, beauty, and forgiveness.

A sample of practical actions to help, include (modified from Luskin, 2003):

  • At a supermarket, be thankful for the fantastic food available.
  • At a hospital, appreciate your health.
  • Recognize and thank the salesperson in a shop.
  • Appreciate the beauty of the clouds when you are stuck in traffic.
  • Step into nature and be overwhelmed by its wonder.
  • Listen to stories of people who have forgiven others.
  • Practice forgiving the small upsets you carry on a day-to-day basis.
  • Forgive those you love and recognize how easy it is.
  • Observe love in families and friends.

 

Step Two – Practice the “breath of thanks”

Allocate time daily to the breath of thanks:

  • Stop, sit and focus on your breathing (our Three Minute Breathing Space can offer a useful introduction to grounding yourself while breathing)
  • Recognize your breath – each inhalation, and exhalation
  • Breathe slowly and deeply for three to five breaths
  • For each of the next five breaths, silently say the words thank you while registering how lucky you are to be alive
  • Gently return to normal breathing, before returning to your earlier activities

 

Step Three – Practice the “heart focus”

Repeat the heart focus practice three or more times a week

  • As above, draw your attention to your breathing
  • Focus on a time when you experienced intense feelings of love or a peaceful scene, perhaps beside the sea, or in a forest
  • Re-experience these feelings, deeply
  • When you drift away from them, gently return
  • Maintain for up to 15 minutes.

 

PERT: Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique

While incredibly powerful for focusing on what is positive and avoiding long term pain and upset, when a painful experience hits us, we need something more immediate.

The Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique (PERT) can help (modified from Luskin, 2003).

PERT can be performed quickly (in less than a minute) and can discreetly return you to a state of calm, restore control, and ready to make useful decisions:

  • Find a comfortable place to sit and attend to each inhalation and exhalation.
  • On the third breath, focus on someone you love.
  • Breathe gently, maintain focus, experiencing the emotions deeply.
  • Ask yourself, what can you do to overcome the present difficulty.

Use the above practices for both ongoing emotional maintenance and emergencies.

For further reading, we have a blog post dedicated to forgiveness exercises.

 

Useful Books

Forgive for Good1. Forgive for Good

Author: Frederic Luskin

This book provides an incredible insight into both the science and practice of forgiveness, reminding us of our good fortune while tackling issues from the past.

Available on Amazon.

 

 

Rewire Your Mind2. Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness

Author: Shauna Shapiro

An authoritative and enjoyable guide to using mindfulness to regain control over our life and rewire our brain for positivity.

Available on Amazon.

 

 

The Art of Forgiveness3. The Art of Forgiveness, Loving Kindness, and Peace

Author: Jack Kornfield

Showing that peace is in every situation we face in life.

Available on Amazon.

 

 

 

What Doesn't Kill Us4. What doesn’t kill us: A guide to overcoming adversity and moving forward

Author: Stephen Joseph

Working with survivors of trauma, Joseph explores how growth can rise out of the most challenging situations.

Available on Amazon.

 

 

A Take-Home Message

There are 86,400 seconds in a day. How do you spend them?

For many of us, we choose to focus on the wrongs done to us. A peer doesn’t listen to us in a meeting; a sibling takes something without asking; a waiter ignores us while on their phone.

These grievances are small, and yet we devote an excessive amount of time to them.

But what if we forgave those that upset us?

Perhaps we could redress the imbalance in our lives, focusing on a world full of beauty, kindness, and love, instead of anger, annoyance, and even hate.

And what of those incidents that are much bigger? A partner cheats on us, a drunk-driver injures a loved one, or a father murders a mother.

Research suggests that while immeasurably more painful, the process is the same. Forgiveness ultimately frees us from a pain that we hold so close that it damages our physical and mental wellbeing, along with our happiness.

Work through some of the tools provided, seek appropriate support where needed, and take back control of your life. Check out some of the stories on The Forgiveness Project, recognize and embrace the strengths found in others, for what we find difficult to do ourselves – forgive.

While bad things cannot always be stopped–through no fault of your own–you can choose how you respond and how they shape your life.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you wish to learn more, don’t forget to check out our Positive Relationships Masterclass©. It is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing.

  • Joseph, S. (2013). What doesn’t kill us: A guide to overcoming adversity and moving forward. London: Piatkus.
  • Luskin, F. (2003). Forgive for Good. HarperOne.
  • McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., Tabak, B. A., & Van Oyen Witvliet, C. (2020). Forgiveness. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Authors), The Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 427-435). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Miller, T. Q., Smith, T. W., Turner, C. W., Guijarro, M. L., & Hallet, A. J. (1996). A meta-analytic review of research on hostility and physical health. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 322-348.
  • Tennen, H., & Affleck, G. (1990). Blaming others for threatening events. Psychological Bulletin, 108(2), 209-232.
  • Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. London: Aster.
  • Witvliet, C. V., Ludwig, T. E., & Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting Forgiveness or Harboring Grudges: Implications for Emotion, Physiology, and Health. Psychological Science, 12(2), 117-123.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

Comments

  1. Tricia Odham

    Useful and well-written article. Thank you for the explanation, exercises, and further resources. This information should be part of the owner’s manual for the human condition.

    Reply
  2. Mathew Puthumana

    Very good article on’ Forgiveness’. Forgiveness is the best pathway for effective relationship. Congratulations.

    Reply
  3. Sandy Cutts

    Excellent article – I am glad that psychology is finally recognising the power of forgiveness that the Bible has taught for centuries. Forgiveness does not marginalise the fact that what was done to you was wrong, it also does not let the perpetrator off the hook. It releases you from the hurt and pain to get on with your life. It also does not mean that you have to return to a trusting relationship with the person you have forgiven. I love the practical steps you have given to help someone with the process. People don’t always realise that forgiveness is not a once off event – its a process that can take weeks, months or even years – as you peel away the layers of pain. Every step in the right direction leads to more freedom.

    Reply
  4. nirosha

    Nice article, thanks.
    My favourite line is:- there are 86,400 seconds in a day and how do you spend them?

    Reply

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