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The Science of Forgiveness and How It Improves Your Well-being!

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

Humans are Born to Forgive

We often think that revenge, jealousy, violence, and competitiveness are at the deepest roots of our being. Although, in part, this is true (we can't escape our biology!) We have an equal, if not greater pre-determined nature to forgive, reconcile and cooperate.

A great example of this is the behavior observed in chimps where they have a higher propensity to engage in friendly contact AFTER conflict than during normal, conflict-free periods. Frans de Waal, a legendary primatologist developed the "valuable relationship" hypothesis which, in essence, says that animals reconcile because it repairs important relationships. By forgiving and repairing, our ancestors were in a far better position to cooperate, improve group outcomes and increase evolutionary fitness. Just think about it: How toxic is it to constantly be angry at a co-worker, friend or family member? How much potential for useful cooperation and dialogue is lost?

Forgiving Makes Us Feel Better

Decades of research has shown that forgiving others who have caused you harm systematically reduces personal distress and fosters happiness. One researcher had participants ‘hold a grudge’ or ‘release it’ and forgive. They measured fight or flight physiology, and those who forgave, relaxed, felt better and reported lowered stress levels. Science has also found that forgiving one day allows us to feel better the next day and couples who have conflicts and forgive are happier. People over 45 years of age who had forgiven others reported greater satisfaction with their lives and were less likely to report symptoms of psychological distress, such as feelings of nervousness, restlessness, and sadness. These findings suggest that forgiveness has benefits such as high self-esteem, better moods, and happier relationships.

Our Thinking Impacts Our Well-being

One interesting thing is the way we think about a situation and the response in our brain. When people are asked to 'think' about a transgression and judge it's level of 'fairness' their neocortex or thinking brain is activated, which reduces the activity of our limbic brain, which is the seat of our emotions. So, a great tool to use when developing the capacity to forgive is to empathize with the transgressor, understand their reasons, heart-ache and personal challenges, which will then activate the emotional limbic center of our brain and not the rational cortex. This, in turn, makes forgiving easier while also reducing the negative emotional response to a particular situation. What we have found is that forgiveness can reduce stress, blood pressure, anger, depression, hurt, and it can increase optimism, hope, compassion, and physical vitality. So how can we define and practice forgiveness?

Defining Forgiveness (4 components)

  1. Accepting that transgression has happened

  2. Reduced urge to punish or seek vengeance

  3. Decline in avoidance

  4. Increase in compassion toward offender for their own suffering

Forgiveness is not….

  • Reconciling with the person who harmed you

  • Condoning the offense

  • Absolving the offender of responsibility

Practicing Forgiveness

This is a topic that needs a whole article, so I will keep this short. In practice, forgiveness is the art of accepting the circumstances that have created your current pain without wishing for different outcomes. It's the wholehearted release of your personal tension, animosity and anger towards a person or situation. It requires that you take full responsibility for your personal circumstances so you can move on and thrive as an individual. In short, forgiveness is for you and helps your heart heal and your brain function better. So, who are you not forgiving? How could letting go benefit your well-being and that of those around you?

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