Raising Happiness

 

Forgive and…Feel Happier

May 12, 2008 | The Main Dish | 9 comments

"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned. " -Buddha

Few people fully realize the huge impact the ability to forgive can have on their happiness, nor do most people think of this as a skill that they need to teach and practice with their children. But important it is: forgiving people tend to be happier, healthier, and more empathetic (and like the Buddha, more serene, agreeable, and spiritual).

The inability to forgive, on the other hand, tends to make us into those people—we all know a few—who can't seem to stop plotting revenge or ruminating about how they've been wronged. Researchers find unforgiving people tend to be hateful, angry, and hostile—which also makes them anxious, depressed, and neurotic. So unless we are okay with our children embodying those qualities, we need to teach them how and why to forgive others.
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Part of going through life with other human beings means sometimes experiencing hurt and betrayal, injury and loss. Childhood can be particularly fraught with meanness and bullying. Children don't emerge into the world with perfect social competence, and as we are learning to become kinder and better people, we inevitably make mistakes. One of the most difficult but important lessons we can teach our children is that when we hold a grudge—for something large and seemingly justified, or for something small but irksome—we continue to injure ourselves.


Preoccupation with a transgression or hostility towards another can actually make us physically sick. And when we hold onto negative emotions like anger, bitterness, and hatred, we all but eliminate the possibility that we will experience a positive emotion in that moment, because we can't experience joy when we are expressing resentment, or gratitude when harboring anger.

How to Forgive
We teach forgiveness when we forgive others ourselves because our children learn from what we model. We also need to teach our children directly how to forgive. But forgiving other people is challenging. It is not about forgetting, as the adage would have us believe, but about letting go, about choosing positive emotions over negative ones.

Research shows that forgiveness training raises the self-esteem and hope of people who've been hurt and lowers their anxiety. Here are some exercises adapted from Sonja Lyubormirsky's book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, to teach kids (and ourselves!) how to forgive. tools-icon-book.gif

1. Tell family stories about times when you've hurt others. During dinner, for example, take turns reflecting on a time when you each were forgiven. Recall a time when you hurt someone else, either intentionally or accidentally. Then discuss whether or not you feel forgiven for the offense. If you feel you've been forgiven, here are some questions to discuss:

  • How do you know you've been forgiven?
  • Why do you think the person forgave you?
  • Do you think the person you hurt felt better or worse after they forgave you?
  • How did you feel after you were forgiven?
  • What is your relationship like with the person now?
  • Did this experience make you more or less likely to repeat the hurtful behavior?
  • What did you learn from the whole ordeal?

If you do not feel that you've been forgiven, talk about how you might ask for forgiveness (see this Greater Good article for help with this).

2. Role-play empathy and forgiveness. Pick a family member to be the forgiver in this exercise, and ask them to describe a particular person that they blame for something hurtful. Then, stand in the offender's shoes: Why might he have done what he did? What emotions might he have been feeling? Encourage the forgiver to see the broadest picture possible and to give the offender the benefit of the doubt—to imagine the lots of different things that the offender might have been going through. Remind everyone that practicing empathy is not the same as excusing bad behavior, but that it is simply a technique for letting go of anger. Finally, role-play forgiving. What would you say to the offender? What emotions are you feeling as you do the role-play? Try on the facial expressions that you think that you might have when expressing forgiveness. What does your body feel like when you're feeling or expressing forgiveness?

3. Write a forgiveness letter. Help kids write about a time they were hurt in a letter that they may or may not ever send to the person who hurt them. Have them illustrate how they were affected by it at the time and the hurtful or negative feelings they are still experiencing. They can state what they wish the offender had done instead. Have them end this forgiveness letter with an explicit statement of forgiveness, understanding, and even empathy if they can muster it. For example: "I imagine that you didn't realize that what you said would make me cry, and so I forgive you for hurting my feelings."

Forgiving is tough business. It takes courage and resolve to let go of negative feelings when we've been wronged. Fortunately it gets easier with practice&mdash:especially if we start with the small stuff and get in the habit early on—and it makes us stronger and better people.

PLEASE HELP ME write more about forgiveness. Please comment on the blog or send me an email with (1) your story about a time you forgave or were forgiven, (2) a time you helped your child forgive or apologize, or (3) an unresolved offense you'd like help forgiving.


Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a mother of two and the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley
. Find more tips for raising happy kids at greatergoodparents.org.

To read more on forgiveness and apology, see these articles in Greater Good magazine:

Truth + Reconciliation (PDF)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains how forgiveness allowed South Africans to imagine a new beginning for their country.

The New Science of Forgiveness (PDF)
Leading forgiveness researcher Everett L. Worthington, Jr. discusses the health and social benefits of forgiveness.

The Choice to Forgive (PDF)

Fred Luskin shares his research-tested method for helping people give up their grudges.

Making Peace through Apology (PDF)
Apology expert Aaron Lazare explains why some apologies encourage forgiveness and reconciliation and others only make things worse.

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Great information. I wonder what age is a good age to try the exercises you mention? My daughter is just 3 — maybe on the verge of getting the story telling? I’ve struggled to help her understand this concept in terms of forgiving her friend for hurting (biting) her, but not letting her think hurting is okay. Clearly, we have work to do since her friend bit her over a year ago (!) and she still brings it up from time to time. Maybe I’m the one who needs to forgive… http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif

Sarah | 2:54 pm, May 13, 2008 | Link

 

I think this is a great topic!  I would love to learn more, it’s a complicated message to convey to a child.  How do you teach someone to be forgiving, but also stress that the child should stand up for their rights and be firm in their beliefs?  I myself have a hard time with the word “forgive.”  I know forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting, but I also feel like there are some cases where I don’t think it’s necessary to forgive people.  I think it’s very healthy to try and understand the “wrong-doer’s” situation, and having empathy for others is key to alleviating your own pain or bitterness over an issue… however, I feel there are certain things that can never be forgiven.  Is there research on where to draw the line, are there cases where the experts agree with me?  Just wondering…

Monica | 5:47 pm, May 13, 2008 | Link

 

I can remember many years of harboring a terrible grudge against my mother-in-law, to the point that I was starting to talk to myself while alone in the car as a means of saying all the horrible, vengeful things I wanted to say! Nothing can be worse than silent seething – as you said, one can forgive without forgetting. I’ve learned not to go ballistic when around her, and have managed to overlook small things that would have previously set me off. We aren’t best friends, but forgiving past transgressions (and just plain hurtful actions and words) means I took a step towards forging a working relationship with someone I’ll be around for the rest of my life. My son seems to have forgiven and forgotten unpleasant behavior from his classroom bully – though I’m always the one reminding him that he should still keep his guard up – and is perfectly happy about it. Forgiving means we learn how to be bigger people, a hard lesson for kids – but an invaluable one.

Andrea | 12:47 pm, May 14, 2008 | Link

 

Monica,
When you say, ” . . .there are some cases where I don’t think it’s necessary to forgive people,” you are not understanding that “forgiveness” is not about what you are doing for the offender (the one who caused the pain), it’s about what you are doing for yourself (the one feeling the pain).
I know this first hand.  I struggle with forgiveness every day. 
On days when I can do it, I feel good.  When I feel I can’t let go, I’m hurting.  The person who hurt me?  He’s completely oblivious either way. 
If I can forgive, that makes a better life for me.  If I can’t–pain, and lots of it.  The person who hurt me?  Again, couldn’t care less either way.
Revenge?  While that might make me feel better, it only continues a cycle of pain.  The person able to forgive breaks the cycle.  It’s easy to stay mad, to carry a grudge, or plot revenge.  True forgiveness–now that’s hard work.
People think forgiveness is about the person being forgiven.  It’s not.
Great article, Christine.  Thanks for it.
Chris

Chris | 1:19 pm, May 14, 2008 | Link

 

I think it’s very important to teach children how to forgive. In my household, we all feel much better when we openly ask for forgiveness and when we forgive each other. But I have difficulty teaching forgiveness when there is no acknowledgement and repentance for the wrong committed.  There can’t be reconciliation when the parties don’t accept their wrong actions and try to provide reparations to the extent they can.  Without these, I feel that the act of forgiving is only meant to make people feel better, without an attempt at achieving justice and without a chance at improving future behavior.  Having said this, I do believe children should be taught to “let go” (as opposed to “forgive”) depending on the circumstances.

Roxanne Makasdjian | 1:47 pm, May 14, 2008 | Link

 

My 4 years old godson is used to apologize when he has been rude or when he tries to hit someone when this someone tried to teach him something good and he doesn’t like it. And sometimes he does apologize for something he shouldn’t, I ask if we are not creating in him a sort of unnecessary guilty consciousness? In the other hand, when he is forgiven so easy he has again the same bad behaviour. I wonder if he is learning to apologize correctly. (sorry for my English – I’m spanish speaker)

Giuliana | 2:12 pm, May 19, 2008 | Link

 

I read all of your articles, am always enlightened by them, and I really appreciated reading your article on forgiveness – I will be passing along the Buddha quote, very powerful. 
Forgiveness is something I have only recently learned and have been amazed at the impact it has had on my life and level of happiness. 
I was raised in an environment where forgiveness was not a modeled skill – grudges were held by all the adults, toward all of the adults.  My maternal grandmother recently died and finally after 87 years, told my mother why she was so bitter her entire life – her mother had an affair with a neighbor when my grandmother was 13 years old and shamed her whole family.  She carried that shame and anger with her entire life, and even at 87, credited this event as the reason her life was not happy and fulfilled.
For what it is worth, here are the ways I have slowly started to learn to forgive – they echo your words and thoughts about forgiveness. 
To me, forgiveness is now an active verb that I mentally and emotionally have been working on practicing and modeling for my children (ages 2 and 4):
-“Until you forgive, you will always be a victim” – I believe I first read this in a Stephen Covey book and it felt as if someone punched me in the gut – it all made sense when I understood this – to not forgive is to

choose to be unhappy and not allow yourself to be at peace.
-Living in the present moment – when something happens in the past, is does not have the power of the present moment.  It is gone and there is nothing you can do except choose how you view the event and what story you tell yourself about it.  You have the ability to choose your response.
-Give everyone the benefit of the doubt – by believing everyone in every moment is doing the best that they are able, I have been able to forgive, and sometimes not even become upset at certain events that are not how I would hope they would be(the cleaners just lost 4 of my husband’s expensive shirts and I thought, oh well, they will show up, someone must have been having a hard day to make that mistake!)
-It is hardest for me to forgive those I am closest to – I seem to have a higher standard and I seem to be hurt more by their actions than anyone else. Along with everything above, I tell myself “clean slate,” “let’s start over and treat this person as if the hurt is not still there.”
Grudges have been hard for me to release, so letting go of the “story” of being hurt allows me to move forward with that person.
I recently saw the movie Munich, and thought, what if everyone could and wanted to forgive one another?  What would the world be like?  How much less suffering would we cause one another for decades and even centuries?

Nancy | 5:51 pm, June 9, 2008 | Link

 

I find Forgiveness to be a complicated process.  It’s like a pattern burned into your brain.  I feel like I need some achnowledgement that I tried really hard to hold things together in the face of adversity.  It is hard to forgive by yourself though that is really the only way.  I have been willing to forgive and move forward for years now but I feel like I need to talk to the person involved in the present to put it behind us as otherwise it is like our former realtionship is frozen in time at the point the crystal cracked.  I see that I need to do this for myself too.  The hardest part is that the situation I got myself into trying to hold things together deeply affected my health: the story (abbreviated…) – I bought a money pit after asking my now ex’s) father for advice.  Some of it was accurate some was total bs. (Forgiven even with no acknowledgement – I rushed into it without due diligence) Two weeks later we broke up as I could not handle the stress of digging my way out out of the mess I had made and supporting her at the same time as I had an injury that stopped me from working and she had taken to drinking (forgiven). My ex went around telling our mutual frinds that I was “crazy” rather than speaking to me directly and attempting to understand what I was experiencing (total financial panic and major stress). (not forgiven) In the end the house was beautiful.  I spent 4 years pulling a jewel out of a mountain of garbage teaching myself everything about building in the process and becoming a crafstman. I was sick for the lsat 2 years of it as I got lead poisoning and mold toxicity and liver problems from doing the work.  My ex refused to look at the house or speak to me as I was angry that I was sick.  I need to forgive the fact that she could not find it in herself to look at what I built even though we were no longer in a relationhsip and to forgive myself for my dumb mistakes.  I already had to get rid of the house because I found it impossible to be there with this memory.  Why is this stuff so hard?  A 5 minute conversation a hug and a laugh would have allowed me out of this 4 years ago.  As it is I struggle with it everyday and read books about spiritaulity and spend $1000’s on therapy.  I need to LET GO.  I talk to myself alot http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif  this makes me laugh – a good sign.

Jonathan | 2:31 pm, February 11, 2009 | Link

 

This is thought-provoking. I can readily think of times I have struggled to forgive, and what tough work it was. But your suggestion that we share stories about times we have been forgiven? Man, for a while there I drew a total blank. And that was a very big signal. Either I am able to walk on water, OR people have forgiven me for things I’ve done that I’m too blind to even notice. Or–third possibility–I know but am so ashamed I’ve conveniently blanked it out. Wow. Food for thought.
——-

tracy thompson | 9:22 am, November 2, 2009 | Link

 
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