For thousands of years the world's religions have been preaching—if not always practicing—forgiveness. Now the medical community is finding that there are more benefits to letting things go than just better relationships and peace of mind. As the results of long-term studies on the physiological impacts of forgiveness trickle in, the evidence is stacking up behind a single idea: Truly forgiving those who have wronged us is good for our health in myriad ways—it lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, and increases life span.
Medical research on forgiveness is a relatively new field, with the first real study appearing in the late 1980s, but as more and more researchers examine the physiological impacts of forgiveness, the idea that it can be a powerful tool in healing is gaining support. Multiple medical studies have found that people who have forgiven others for a major transgression have lower blood pressure and heart rates when compared to those who have not. Kathleen Lawler-Row, who heads up the psychology department at East Carolina University, has studied the effects of both hostility and forgiveness on the body’s systems extensively. In a 2005 study, she found that sleep quality—which has a known effect on various bodily systems—was positively correlated with forgiveness and negatively correlated with the motivation for revenge. In other words, forgiving someone will make you sleep better at night, but holding on to resentment is likely to lead to insomnia.
In an earlier study, Lawler compared physiological responses to different types of forgiveness, looking at what she describes as "forgiveness as a trait," as well as forgiveness as a reaction to a particular event. In that study, groups of participants were asked to recount experiences in which they had been betrayed; each participant told two stories, one about a friend or partner and the other about a parent. After each story, Lawler gave participants a "recovery" time, during which they were kept silent in a darkened room, listening to soothing music and viewing peaceful images. She recorded what was happening with their blood pressure and heart rates during all of these periods of time and her results were conclusive. "Forgiveness is aptly described as 'a change of heart,'" she writes.
Both those with generally forgiving personalities and those who had truly forgiven their betrayer had lower blood pressure and lower heart rates than their more agitated colleagues. Those who were neither forgiving by nature, nor had let go of the particular betrayal in question, exhibited what Lawler describes as "acute, stress-induced, cardiovascular reactivity," including spikes in blood pressure and heart rate. They also had a more difficult time recovering, physically, from the stress of re-telling the story of the wrong done to them. Their blood pressures and heart rates remained high, while those of their more forgiving counterparts normalized in the time allotted for “recovery” after the retelling of their stories. In summarizing the results of her study, Lawler notes that this sort of cardiovascular activity has been linked to both hypertension and coronary heart disease. Holding a grudge can make you sick.
Lawler isn’t the only researcher to confirm that forgiveness is good for your health. In a study published last month in the Journal of Biobehavioral Sciences, researchers at the University of California at San Diego also found that those who forgave exhibited fewer spikes in blood pressure. Although their study surveyed only 200 people, the researchers concluded that their findings suggested forgiveness could 'lower reactivity' to stressful events and even offer 'sustained protection' from their physical effects. Duke University researchers recently reported a strong correlation between improved immune system function and forgiveness in HIV-positive patients. In a related study, the same group found that forgiveness dovetailed nicely with improved mortality rates in general. A group of New York University researchers studied cardiac patients and found that higher levels of forgiveness were associated with lower levels of anxiety, depression, and perceived stress, as well as lower levels of both the “good” (LDL) and “bad” (HDL) cholesterols.
Researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University found that one’s motives for forgiveness have an effect on the benefits delivered as well. Those with altruistic motives reaped far more rewards—most likely because they’re the ones who managed to truly forgive. Those same researchers also compared what they called "decisional" forgiveness with emotional forgiveness, defining decisional forgiveness as a deliberate choice to avoid being unforgiving and to be nicer to any perceived transgressor. Not surprisingly, the study participants who experienced emotional forgiveness—a true loss of the resentment and anger toward those who had wronged them—experienced more benefits both physically and psychologically.
Anecdotally, doctors are also full of stories about patients who let go of a little resentment and got off of various medications. "I had a patient who went through a rough divorce and it took her years to get over it," says Katherine Hurst, MD, an Iowa doctor who has written about the benefits of forgiveness. "She was on antidepressants, blood pressure meds, and sleeping pills for years. When she finally forgave him and forgot about the marriage she was able to go off of all of them."
It's a lesson we might want to take to heart as a nation. While no one is suggesting that we get rid of things like justice and punishment altogether, learning to master the art of forgiveness could not only make our society safer and saner, but also make us all a little bit healthier.