Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Emotional Relief of Forgiving Someone

Jancee Dunn is out this week. I’m Catherine Pearson, a reporter on the Well desk, filling in today.

For someone who’s led a charmed life, my 8-year-old can hold a serious grudge. Out of the blue, he recently brought up “that bad pencil thing that happened.” It took me a while to divine that he was talking about the classmate who nabbed one of his writing utensils … nearly two years ago.

I thought about my son’s inability to let go of The Great Pencil Incident of First Grade when I learned recently about new research that suggests forgiveness improves mental well-being — and offers a road map for getting there.

In the study, which was presented last week at an interdisciplinary conference on forgiveness at Harvard and is currently under review for publication, researchers randomly assigned 4,598 participants from five countries into groups. One set received a forgiveness workbook with exercises they completed on their own. (An example: Write the story of a specific hurt you want to forgive. Then write it again as more of an observer, without emphasizing how bad the wrongdoer was or how you felt victimized. Look for at least three differences between the two versions.) Those in the control group waited for two weeks before receiving the workbook.

When the two weeks were up, researchers found that those participants who’d completed the workbook felt more forgiving than those in the control group — and had reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. These findings jibe with other studies on forgiveness, which have found it can be a boon to mental health, helping to do things like lower stress and improve sleep.

“What forgiveness does is sort of free the victim from the offender,” said Tyler VanderWeele, the director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard and one of the co-authors of the study. “I would never say ‘Once you’ve forgiven, everything’s fine.’” But it is a better alternative to rumination or suppression, he said. And that is likely why it can improve overall mental well-being.

As my son shows, it can be hard to forgive even minor transgressions — and I’m not dunking on him here. I could easily prattle off a list of perceived offenses I’ve been holding onto for years. But Dr. VanderWeele believes forgiveness is a skill that can be practiced. I spoke to him about how to get started.

Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What does it mean to forgive someone?

My working definition is just to replace ill will toward the offender with good will. Forgiveness is not forgetting the action or pretending it didn’t happen; it’s not excusing or condoning the action, and it’s not the same as reconciling or forgoing justice. One can forgive while still pursuing a just outcome.

The workbook in the study relies heavily on the work of one of your study co-authors, Everett Worthington, who has a remarkable forgiveness story himself: His mother was murdered in the mid-1990s, and he forgave the perpetrator. What are some of the core strategies?

One is to recall the hurt, don’t try to suppress it. Another is to try and empathize with the offender — without condoning them or invalidating your own feelings.

Easier said than done!

One exercise is to set up two chairs and pretend the offender is in one of them. After describing what happened from your perspective, you sit in the chair of the offender and describe what happened from theirs. It can be a bit unsettling, but it’s a very powerful experience.

Do you think people can get better at forgiveness over time?

It is possible to move to a more forgiving disposition — to think, How do I want to interact with the world more generally? This is most certainly not going to be the last time I’m hurt or offended by others, so when this happens again, might I be in a better position to forgive?

In a society like the one we’re living in, with increasing polarization and animosity, that disposition to forgive is potentially very much needed.

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