The University Record, December 17, 2001

Forgiveness may lead to better health

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Just how often do you forgive and forget? A new study by the Institute for Social Research (ISR) finds nearly 60 percent of the 1,423 Americans sampled report that they have forgiven themselves for past mistakes and wrong-doing. Nearly three-quarters say they feel they’ve been forgiven by God. But only 52 percent say they have forgiven others and just 43 percent say they have actively sought forgiveness for harm they have done.

The study finds that middle-aged and older adults were more likely to forgive others than were younger adults. In those aged 45 and older, forgiving others was linked with better self-reported mental and physical health. “The benefits of forgiveness seem to increase with age,” says Loren Toussaint, a psychologist who is the first author of the study published in the October Journal of Adult Development.

Older people also were more likely than the young to feel forgiven by God, although all ages reported experiencing high levels of this type of forgiveness, a finding that Toussaint says left him “slightly surprised. I think all of us, at one time or another, when we’ve made the same mistakes over and over again, have felt that we must be a disappointment in God’s eyes. Yet there’s a remarkably high level of confidence across the country that God forgives us, compared to a much lower level of forgiveness of oneself and others.”

About 80 percent of adults aged 45 and older said they knew that God forgave them for their sins and that this knowledge gave them the strength to face their faults and be a better person, compared to 69 percent of those aged 18–44. In comparison, 46 percent of the young, 57 percent of the middle-aged and 62 percent of those aged 65 and older scored high on a series of questions designed to assess the extent to which they had forgiven others. “We found a particularly strong relationship between forgiveness of others and mental health among middle-aged and older Americans,” says David R. Williams, a sociologist and senior research scientist at ISR. People who reported higher levels of this type of forgiveness were more satisfied with their lives and less likely to report feeling nervous, restless or sad.

The researchers also found that women were more forgiving than men, with 54 percent of women scoring high in forgiveness of others compared to 49 percent of men and 48 percent of women reporting that they had actively sought another’s forgiveness, compared to just 37 percent of men.

But not all types of forgiveness had positive effects. “High levels of ‘proactive forgiveness,’ which involves asking forgiveness from someone you’ve hurt, asking God to forgive you, or praying to God to forgive someone who has hurt you, were strongly linked with high levels of psychological distress,” says Toussaint, who is currently affiliated with Idaho State University. “Furthermore, older adults with high levels of proactive forgiveness reported less satisfaction with their lives than other older adults. This is understandable, since asking forgiveness can be stressful. It involves admitting to yourself that you’ve done something really wrong. Also, you risk rejection from the other person.”

To explain why certain forms of forgiveness are positively related to health, Toussaint and Williams plan to examine the extent to which forgiveness is important in dealing with the anger and trauma following Sept. 11. “I suspect that forgiveness may prove to be a sort of psychological antidote to anger, which has already been shown to have a host of negative physical and mental health effects,” says Toussaint.

Funding for the current study was provided by the Fetzer Institute as part of the John Templeton Foundation campaign for forgiveness research, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Collaborators included sociologist Marc A. Musick, now at the University of Texas at Austin, and epidemiologist Susan A. Everson, now at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago.