Is forgiving good for your health?

When 64-year-old teacher Robert Davis was beaten by the New Orleans police for public drunkenness despite the fact that he hadn't had a drink for 25 years, you might expect him to feel angry about it. You wouldn't be surprised if he held a grudge against the police for many years thereafter. Yet instead, he said he didn't blame the police for their actions. He could understand why they might have suspected he was a threat.

According to a study by Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Thomas Ludwig, and Kelly Vander Laan, what he did wasn't just a nice thing to do, it may also have been good for his health. Several studies have examined the relationship between forgiveness and mental health, finding that it's better for your peace of mind to forgive than to hold a grudge. However, no study prior to the Witvliet team's had looked at physical health.

To study the impact of forgiveness, the team asked 71 participants to recall an individual who had wronged them in the past. They were asked how severe the offense was, whether the perpetrator had apologized, and whether the friendship had survived the offense. Next, participants were attached to devices to measure facial tension corresponding to negative emotions (an electromyogram placed on the brow), skin conductance (a measure often used in lie detector tests), heart rate, and blood pressure, on a moment-to-moment basis. Then they read one of four scripts designed to evoke forgiving or unforgiving responses:

  • Rehearsing the hurt. Participants rehearse the memories of the hurtful event.
  • Harboring a grudge. Participants maintain their anger against the perpetrator, in order to maintain emotional control or "save face."
  • Developing empathy. Participants try to understand the whole person who committed the offense, instead of solely thinking of them as an offender.
  • Granting forgiveness. Participants let go of negative feelings about the offender (without absolving them of guilt) and instead take on feelings of mercy and goodwill.

Then, after 8 seconds of relaxation, a tone sounded to tell participants to begin imagining the particular feeling indicated by the script. After 16 seconds, a second tone sounded, and participants were asked to relax again (by breathing deeply and repeating the word "one"). The following set of charts shows the participants' physiological responses, broken into 4-second intervals beginning at the point when the first tone sounded (click on the image for a larger version):


For each of the unforgiving responses ("hurt" and "grudge"), each physiological measure recorded an unhealthy response: increased facial tension measured by the electromyogram, increased skin conductance, high heart rate, and high blood pressure. The responses did not depend on the severity of the offense or whether the victim had ever reconciled with the offender—the emotions evoked the same physiological responses in every case. What's more, for three of these measures, the unhealthy response continued even after the period of unforgiving responses.

While Witvliet and her colleages don't believe that the short-term responses in their experiment could cause any lasting harm, they are concerned that individuals who are chronically unable to forgive may be susceptible to illness, especially heart disease. So it seems that at least with respect to his willingness to forgive, Robert Davis may expect to live a long and heart-healthy life.

Witvliet, C.V.O, Ludwig, T.E., & Vander Laan, K.L. (2001). Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12(2), 117-123.

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For years I've encouraged those that I work with to resolve workplace conflict to forgive and move forward. Many resist the advice, considering it too 'touchy-feely'. I'm thrilled to be able to say that there is scientific evidence to suggest that long-standing conflicts (and an unwillingness to forgive) can be harmful to mental and physical health.

Thanks so much for your informative work.

Dina Beach Lynch, Ombuds
Featured in Inc. magazine, Nov. 2005

It is good to know that a person who has been harmed can benefit by trying to empathasize with the offender and let go of the injury. This is good self-help for anybody. But genuine forgiveness carries a responsibility on both sides. If the offender does not acknowledge the harm, does not apologize, and (most importantly) does not change their subsequent behavior, then they are not asking for forgiveness and cannot meaningfully be forgiven. Victims can still try to reframe their experiences to minimize ongoing harm to themselves, but calling that process 'forgiving' does not seem quite accurate.

By Alan Siggia (not verified) on 20 Nov 2005 #permalink