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
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."