Many people view forgiveness as an offshoot of love -- a gift given freely to those who have hurt you.
Forgiveness, however, may bring enormous benefits to the person who gives that gift, according to recent research. If you can bring yourself to forgive and forget, you are likely to enjoy lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, and a drop in the stress hormones circulating in your blood, studies suggest. Back pain, stomach problems, and headaches may disappear. And you'll reduce the anger, bitterness, resentment, depression, and other negative emotions that accompany the failure to forgive.
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Of course, forgiving is notoriously difficult. "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive," said C.S. Lewis.
And forgetting may not be a realistic or desirable goal.
"Despite the familiar cliche, 'forgive and forget,' most of us find forgetting nearly impossible," says Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Hope College. "Forgiveness does not involve a literal forgetting. Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt."
Forgiving (and Forgetting) Quells Stress
That type of angry "embellishment," as Witvliet calls it, seems to carry serious consequences. In a 2001 study, she monitored the physiological responses of 71 college students as they either dwelled on injustices done to them, or imagined themselves forgiving the offenders.
"When focused on unforgiving responses, their blood pressure surged, their heart rates increased, brow muscles tensed, and negative feelings escalated," she says. "By contrast, forgiving responses induced calmer feelings and physical responses. It appears that harboring unforgiveness comes at an emotional and a physiological cost. Cultivating forgiveness may cut these costs."
But how do we cultivate forgiveness?
Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, readily admits that forgiveness, like love, can't be forced.
"You can't just will forgiveness," says Luskin, author of Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. "What I teach is that you can create conditions where forgiveness is more likely to occur. There are specific practices we offer that diminish hostility and self-pity, and increase positive emotions, so it becomes more likely that a genuine, heartfelt release of resentment will occur."