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What Is Forgiveness?

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.

Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.

Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. In that way, it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.

For More: Read forgiveness expert Fred Luskin’s essay, “What Is Forgiveness?,” and Jack Kornfield’s thoughts on what forgiveness means. Learn more about forgiveness research in this summary of key studies and consider: Is anything unforgiveable?

Why Practice Forgiveness?

We often think of forgiveness as a kind, magnanimous act—an act of mercy or compassion extended to someone who wronged us. While that can be true, research over the past few decades has revealed enormous personal benefits to forgiveness as well. According to that research, here are some of the most compelling ways forgiveness is good for us, our relationships, and our communities.

  • Forgiveness makes us happier: Research suggests not only that happy people are more likely to forgive but that forgiving others can make people feel happy, especially when they forgive someone to whom they feel close.
  • Forgiveness improves our health: When we dwell on grudges, our blood pressure and heart rate spike—signs of stress which damage the body; when we forgive, our stress levels drop, and people who are more forgiving are protected from the negative health effects of stress. Studies also suggest that holding grudges might compromise our immune system, making us less resistant to illness.
  • Forgiveness sustains relationships: When our friends inevitably hurt or disappoint us, holding a grudge makes us less likely to sacrifice or cooperate with them, which undermines feelings of trust and commitment, driving us further apart. Studies suggest that forgiveness can stop this downward spiral and repair our relationship before it dissolves.
  • Forgiveness is good for marriages (most of the time): Spouses who are more forgiving and less vindictive are better at resolving conflicts effectively in their marriage. A long-term study of newlyweds found that more forgiving spouses had stronger, more satisfying relationships. However, when more forgiving spouses were frequently mistreated by their husband or wife, they became less satisfied with their marriage.
  • Forgiveness boosts kindness and connectedness: People who feel forgiving don’t only feel more positive toward someone who hurt them. They are also more likely to want to volunteer and donate money to charity, and they feel more connected to other people in general.
  • Forgiveness can help heal the wounds of war: A research-based forgiveness training program in Rwanda, for instance, was linked to reduced trauma and more positive attitudes between the Hutus and Tutsis there. A study of people who learned forgiveness skills in war-torn Sierra Leone found that they reported feeling less depressed, more grateful, more satisfied with life, and less stressed afterward.

    Perhaps most famously, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is widely credited with encouraging forgiveness and reconciliation after the end of apartheid in that country. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission’s chairman, has argued that forgiveness is the path to “true enduring peace.”

For More: Learn more about the benefits of forgiveness in researcher Everett Worthington’s article, “The New Science of Forgiveness,” and in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s essay, “Forgiveness + Reconciliation.”

How to Cultivate Forgiveness?

According to Robert Enright, Fred Luskin, and other experts, forgiveness isn’t just for the deeply magnanimous among us; it’s both a choice and a trainable skill that almost anyone can learn. Fortunately, research suggests that the capacity for forgiveness is an intrinsic part of human nature. Here are some research-based strategies for tapping into that capacity, whether you’re trying to forgive others, forgive yourself, or seek forgiveness from someone else.

  • View forgiveness as something for you, not a gift to someone else: In his Nine Steps to Forgiveness program, Fred Luskin emphasizes that forgiveness is best seen as something that will bring you peace, closure, and reduce your suffering—a point echoed by Jack Kornfield in this video.
  • Articulate your emotions: If you want to forgive or be forgiven, be willing to express how you’re feeling to others and to yourself. Ruminating on negative feelings is both unhealthy and unproductive. As the GGSC’s Christine Carter argues, this is an important lesson to teach kids as well.
  • Look for the silver lining: This can be a controversial tip, but research suggests that after someone hurts you, you can forgive more easily by reflecting on the personal benefits you may have gained through the transgression. Writing about those benefits might be especially helpful.
  • Make an effective apology: If you’re seeking forgiveness from others, studies suggest that apologizing will help—but weak apologies might only make things worse. Researcher Aaron Lazare has studied apologies for years, concluding that an effective apology has four parts: It acknowledges the offense, offers an explanation for the offense, expresses remorse or shame, and involves a reparation of some kind.
  • Cultivate empathy: When someone has been hurt, they’ll be more likely to forgive—and less likely to retaliate—if they can sense or imagine the distress or remorse felt by the person who hurt them. This might explain why apologies foster forgiveness.
  • Humanize the Other through contact: Research in Northern Ireland found that people on both sides of the violence there were more likely to forgive if they came into contact with someone from the other side, perhaps because it reduced feelings of anger and encouraged them to see the other’s humanity.
  • Don’t let yourself off too easy: Research suggests that forgiving yourself for mistakes can sometimes reduce your empathy for others and your motivation to make amends. For a more healthy way to forgive yourself, read these research-based steps, which include empathizing with your victim and honestly reflecting on what you did wrong.
  • Seek peace, not justice: In his forgiveness program, Robert Enright emphasizes that forgiveness is separate from justice. The people who hurt you may never get their just desserts, but that shouldn’t prevent you from moving on with your life.
  • Understand that forgiveness is a process: True forgiveness doesn’t happen in an instant; instead, it takes time and energy to achieve, and might not come easily.

For more: Check out Christine Carter’s tips for teaching forgiveness skills to children, adapted from Luskin’s nine steps. And she offers these tips for fostering forgiveness in families.

Leading forgiveness researchers have also developed their own evidence-based programs to foster forgiveness, including the following.

  • Luskin’s Nine Steps to Forgiveness, which involve a mix of cognitive and meditative strategies, from articulating your grievance to shifting your expectations from life to revising the way you look at your past.
  • Robert Enright’s Forgiveness Process Model, which consists of 20 steps divided into four phases: the Uncovering Phase, where one becomes aware of the true emotional stress he has suffered; the Decision Phase, where one commits to forgiving rather than continuing to focus exclusively on his suffering; the Work Phase, where one comes to accept—but not condone—the pain he has suffered, no matter how undeserved; and finally the Outcome/Deepening Phase, where one recognizes the relief and meaning he is gaining from forgiveness.
  • Everett Worthington’s REACH method for forgiveness, which involves five steps: Recall the hurt, Empathize with the person who hurt you, offer an Altruistic gift of forgiveness, Commit to forgive (ideally publicly), and Hold onto that forgiveness.

How Forgiving Are You?

Find out by taking our forgiveness quiz, based on a scale created by forgiveness research pioneer Michael McCullough.

 

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