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 the wrongdoer.
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.
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