Forgiveness carries many benefits, according to research. Releasing feelings of resentment or vengeance makes us happier, improves our health, and sustains relationships, among other things.
Now, a new study suggests another potential gain from forgiving others: It may decrease our paranoia—something that could otherwise keep us locked into patterns of distrust and isolation.
In a series of experiments, researchers measured forgiveness and paranoia. In one, for example, participants completed a questionnaire measuring their tendency toward forgiving others that asked how much they agree with statements like, “I continue to punish a person who has done something I think is wrong” or “Although others have hurt me in the past, I have eventually been able to see them as good people.”
Three days later and ten days later, researchers asked participants to recall a pleasant and difficult social experience they’d had recently, and to rate how stressed and paranoid they felt after each experience. Difficult social experiences included things like not being invited to a friend’s party, being treated rudely by a store clerk, or fighting with a colleague about work issues. Ratings of paranoia came from asking people how much they agreed with statements like “Someone has it in for me” or “Someone would have harmed me if they could.”
After analyzing the results, the researchers found that all participants had higher levels of paranoia and stress for unpleasant events than for pleasant events—no surprise there. However, those who were more forgiving types experienced lower stress and paranoia in those difficult situations than people who were less forgiving.
“These findings add dispositional forgiveness to the range of psychological resources that buffer or attenuate paranoia,” write the authors.
Though the results imply a positive role for forgiveness, it’s hard to know whether more paranoid people are less forgiving or people reluctant to forgive become more paranoid. To get at this, the researchers performed another experiment in which they tried to encourage people to take on a more forgiving mindset.
Since there is no quick, easy way to do this—forgiving others can actually take a lot of effort and time—they used a proxy activity. Participants filled out a questionnaire created by the authors that supposedly measured their forgiveness tendencies, then were randomly told that they’d scored either above or below average on their willingness to forgive others who’d harmed them. After being asked to write an essay explaining why they scored the way they did, they filled out actual, scientifically validated forgiveness surveys, which indicated if they’d absorbed this view of themselves as more or less forgiving people.
Next, they were given the paranoia survey to see if being forgiving affected their scores. Those prompted to feel more forgiving scored lower on the paranoia survey than their less forgiving counterparts. This suggests that encouraging a forgiving mindset may help us avoid overreacting to harm from others.
“We conceptually replicated and extended [our] findings by demonstrating, for the first time, that forgiveness exerts a causal effect on (reduced) paranoia,” the researchers write.
Of course, it’s important that forgiveness not be coerced and that people who have harmed you aren’t simply “let off the hook.” Researchers often emphasize that forgiveness is more about personal well-being for the person who was harmed—and that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to reconcile with someone or preclude you from seeking justice.
So, if you are withholding forgiveness, it may mean you are also holding on to paranoia, making it difficult to trust others’ motivations in everyday life. If so, it could be useful to consider the work of forgiving others—not just for your own mental health, but to prevent you taking out your pain on other people.