The Science of Forgiveness

Science tells us that forgiveness bolsters emotional health and provides a way of healing for those treated unjustly.
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Justice for all. Patience in the face of annoyance. Compassion for the sick. Mercy on the poor. Forgiveness toward one's enemies. Such maxims for life have pervaded societies for millennia. Underneath such truisms lie the moral virtues -- those themes of goodness that help the person and the society to function well. We learn very early in life to be fair, to be patient, to give out of our abundance that others may live, to say we are sorry and move on well.

We learn these virtues from authority figures, teachers, parents and peers. Sometimes we inhale the received wisdom without a moment's thought. Have we ever asked as a society, "How exactly do we go about being just? How do we actually walk a path of forgiveness? If we refuse to be just, what are the consequences for individuals' well-being and for our social group? When we do forgive, what are the consequences?" The questions need not have answers that are inhaled without thought, because each of these questions can be tested scientifically. For example, if one person in a family forgives and another clings tightly to the grudge, what happens to the family dynamics? This can be tested.

In 1985 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we began a journey of investigating the scientific outcomes when people forgive. It has kept our attention now for over a quarter of a century. The first step in good science is to define one's terms. Forgiveness, we found from the ancient literature across Hebrew, Confucian, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu writings, has a common theme. Forgiveness, we further found from modern philosophical writings, has the same underlying theme. When unjustly treated by others, a person forgives when she struggles to abandon resentment and to offer beneficence toward the unjust person or people. Forgiveness, we saw, is part of mercy and so it can appear to come from a position of weakness as the unjustly treated person offers the olive branch. Yet, forgiveness is anything but weak because the forgiver is not condoning, excusing, forgetting, or necessarily even reconciling with the other because none of these qualities is a moral virtue centered in goodness as is forgiveness. When a person forgives, he does not abandon justice, but instead exercises this virtue along with the mercy that is forgiveness.

After taking time to learn what forgiveness is and is not, we devised a pathway that in theory should help people, who willingly choose to do so, to forgive. That pathway is now described in the book Forgiveness Is a Choice, published by the American Psychological Association. The book outlines twenty "guideposts" or steps in the forgiveness process. The short version of that process is this:

  • First, the one who forgives examines the degree to which the injustice has affected her emotions, such as anger, hatred, resentment and so forth. Feeling rotten inside is a great motivator to change.
  • Second, if a person decides to change his inner world, affected by the other's injustice, he then decides to practice forgiveness, understanding that he is offering merciful goodness and not condoning.
  • Next comes what the late Lewis Smedes called "seeing with new eyes," as the forgiver sees that the injuring person is more than the offenses she has committed. The forgiver sees the unconditional worth of the other as a person, which can lead to empathy and compassion and eventually to the willingness to offer goodness to the other out of mercy. It is here that forgiveness takes root, opening up the possibility of restored emotional and relational health.

Yet, all of this is still a scientific question and not untested assertion. So, we put the pathway of forgiveness to the test through randomized clinical trials with the following groups among others: emotionally abused women, college students hurt by emotionally distant parents, the elderly hurt by family members, incest survivors, people recovering in a drug rehabilitation facility, men who were angry and who had cardiac problems, and hospice patients who wanted to tie up the loose ends of family estrangement before passing on. In each study, as people willingly walked the path of forgiveness by offering the gift of mercy to the unjust, those in the forgiveness groups experienced emotional health improvement compared to those in the control groups. In the incest study, for example, these positive results included the elimination of psychological depression, which remained low even one year after the forgiveness program ended. Science tells us that forgiveness bolsters emotional health and provides a way of healing for those treated unjustly.

The next step was to bring this work into the peace movement, and our first foray was a rather dramatic one: in 1999, the International Forgiveness Institute worked behind the scenes as the Rev. Jessie Jackson talked with President Milošević in Belgrade regarding having mercy on imprisoned American soldiers. In the end, the president chose the path of mercy and forgiveness, releasing them.

A logical next step was to ask yet another scientific question: If forgiveness can improve the psychological health of adults, can it do so for children? In 2002, we launched our most ambitious project to date, the development of forgiveness education curricula for children in war-torn, impoverished, and/or oppressed areas of the globe to help them learn about forgiveness and to practice it in a small way in school and in the family, if they so choose. All of the instruction is delivered by the classroom teacher, to preserve cultural nuances. All lessons are delivered through the medium of story, such as Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, or Disney's The Fox and the Hound. As children see story characters making their way out of difficulty via both justice and forgiveness, they are given insight into these virtues and how they can be worked out in small and large groups. Our studies of classrooms in both Belfast, Northern Ireland and Milwaukee's central city show that as children learn about forgiveness, their levels of anger go down. It is our hope that such anger reduction, if it continues, may help them to quiet enough that they can begin to see, when they are adults, the best paths toward justice. The Belfast work is featured in the award-winning documentary The Power of Forgiveness, produced by Journey Films.

Forgiveness education as one path toward peace is catching on worldwide, as seen in the recent requests for our educational materials from educators and psychologists in such areas as Iran, Rwanda, Colombia, Nigeria, Korea, and others. Is forgiveness a major factor in bringing about peace? This is a scientific question, and with enough time and perseverance, we should be able to answer it.

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