Holding a Grudge Can Be Bad for Your Health
Feb. 25, 2000 (Atlanta) -- To forgive is divine and, if Hope College
researchers are correct, it may also be healthy. Researchers at the college in
Holland, Mich., say forgiveness seems to be better for people than holding a
grudge, at least in terms of negative effects on the body.
Forgiveness is something nearly all Americans believe in but don't always
practice. In a recent nationwide Gallup poll, 94% of respondents said it was
important to forgive, while only 48% said they usually tried to forgive others.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once equated forgiveness with weakness. But
Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD, lead researcher in the study, believes that
failure to forgive can weaken a person's health.
"When people think about their offenders in unforgiving ways, they tend
to experience stronger negative emotions and greater [physiological] stress
responses," Witvliet tells WebMD. "In contrast, when these same people
think about their offenders in more forgiving ways, they tend to experience
great positive emotion, greater perceived control, and less potent negative
emotion and stress in the short term." Witvliet is an assistant professor
of psychology at Hope College.
In the study, about 70 undergraduates -- roughly half males and half females
-- repeatedly imagined actual situations in which they either forgave a
wrongdoer or nursed a grudge. The researchers measured the students' facial
muscle tension, amount of sweating, heart rate, and blood pressure through
electrodes placed onto their skin. The students were told to imagine four
responses: remembering the hurt, holding a grudge and/or plotting revenge,
empathy with the offender, and granting forgiveness.
The measurements showed researchers how agitated the volunteers were.
Witvliet says participants rated the imagined situations in which they did not
forgive as more depressing. "They reported that they felt less dominant
than when focusing on forgiving responses," she said.
The researchers discovered that physiological activity was substantially
higher when the students imaged situations in which they were unforgiving. Even
when they were instructed to stop imagining, their bodily responses remained
stronger after imagining a negative situation than one in which they forgave
Witvliet says the ongoing study, which is sponsored by a grant from the
Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation, shows that nursing a hurt leads
to agitation and hostility that linger even after a person stops thinking about
the incident. She says she believes that people who don't forgive could be
setting themselves up for future health problems ranging from mild depression
to acute cardiovascular woes. "It may be that forgiveness holds its own
type of healing."
Several other studies have suggested a relationship between forgiveness and
health. Joseph Neumann, PhD, a clinical psychologist at East Tennessee State
University, is researching the relationship between forgiveness and heart
disease. "When I treated patients with cardiovascular disease, I was struck
by how many were bitter, angry, and depressed," says Neumann. "It
clearly affected their health and their ability to heal."
To test his hypothesis, Neumann is planning a study using a variety of
methods to test 200 volunteers for their capacity to forgive. Neumann says that
based on past experience, he would be surprised if he doesn't find that those
who score high on the forgiveness scale have less anger, depression, and
anxiety and are at lower risk for cardiovascular disease.