Since the launch of the Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being and Greater Good magazine, people often ask if we study international peace and diplomacy. It’s a fair assumption, given our name. But our center has its roots in psychology and education, not peace and conflict studies.
Yet we’re quick to emphasize how these fields overlap. So many of the principles vital to peace between individuals—tolerance, empathy, humility—apply to peace between groups as well. Indeed, a main mission of this magazine is to show how the great potential for human goodness extends outward from the individual psyche to the larger society.
Our first issue was devoted to the topic of compassion, a primary virtue for the greater good. We have chosen forgiveness as the theme of this issue’s symposium because it illustrates the far-reaching power of compassion in action. Any exploration of the psychology of peace must appreciate forgiveness’s role in maintaining harmonious bonds between friends, romantic partners, community groups, and political bodies.
The four essays in the forgiveness symposium form a continuum from the interpersonal to the international. In the lead essay, Everett Worthington, a psychologist and the director of the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, ties together a range of scientific findings on the benefits of forgiveness to physical and mental health, and to the health of relationships. This research indicates that relinquishing grudges large and small makes life more personally gratifying, and strengthens our connections to family, friends, and even strangers.
Knowing about forgiveness’s benefits doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to do. That’s why forgiveness researchers have focused not only on the rewards of forgiveness but on successful methods for teaching it. In his essay, Fred Luskin describes the method that he and his colleagues at Stanford University have developed and tested to help people let go of lifelong grudges. His impressive results, and the stories behind them, inspire hope that most anyone can learn to replace grudges with feelings of hope and compassion.
As Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes in his essay, learn¬ing to forgive can be vital to the survival of an entire country. Forgiveness played a prominent role in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of apartheid so that citizens could begin to confront them and move on. Drawing on the example of South Africa, Archbishop Tutu explains how forgiveness is often both a moral duty and a political necessity.
Finally, psychiatrist Aaron Lazare brings the discussion of forgiveness into the arena of international relations. Lazare dissects the elements of a successful apology and, applying his analysis to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, shows how some apologies can inspire forgiveness and reconciliation between one-time enemies—while failed attempts at apology may only make things worse.
Integral to each of these essays are stories of people who chose forgiveness over anger and retribution. Their decisions may seem heroic or even illogical. But the ability to forgive often improved their personal health, relationships with others, and practi¬cally or symbolically promoted peace between cultures. They repaid cruelty with empathy, transforming tragedy into hope.
These instances of forgiveness are admirable, but they are not aberrations. Some of the people featured in this issue were simply following their instincts. In other cases, people struggled with forgiveness but gradually learned to appreciate its value. The experiences of both groups confirm what scientists have found repeatedly in recent years: forgiveness is adaptive and healthy, and it can be taught to people in most any circumstance.
In our war-torn world and divided nation, there is a growing hunger for any knowledge or skills that might help reduce conflict. Of course, no cure exists for all the problems that plague this planet, just as there’s no easy fix for a damaged relationship. But the science and stories featured in this issue of Greater Good convey that forgiveness is a vital step in the right direction.
About The Author
Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life and a co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness.