Why forgiving others will improve your physical, emotional health

This mural was accompanied by a note that read, "Remember - it's always easier to get forgiveness than permission." Forgiveness may be better for your health, according to a new study. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Your spouse cheated on you. Your business partner swindled you, or you had a falling out with a friend. When you’re profoundly hurt or betrayed, it may feel like forgiveness is impossible. But consider it, one scientist says, because letting go of a grudge “virtually erases” the toll it takes on your mental and physical health.

Dr. Loren Toussaint, an associate professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa, has been studying stress, coping with hardships and forgiveness for the past 15 years.

In his latest findings, Toussaint learned that those who are most forgiving live healthier, happier lives compared to those who couldn’t let go and learn from painful experiences.

“We found that the people who are the most forgiving, they tend to be forgiving for lots of things and to lots of people. It doesn’t matter what the situation was, and they showed virtually no relationship between stress and bad health. We’re always asked how we can minimize stress because we live with so much of it but here’s an ancient wisdom — you have to be more forgiving to yourself, other people and the tough situations you’re in,” Toussaint told Global News.

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“When you don’t have these resilient virtues of forgiveness, these things that bolster you and strengthen you against negative things in life, and you haven’t cultivated it in your personality and the person you are, then stress has its full unadulterated impact on your health,” Toussaint warned.

He and his team worked with about 150 people who filled out thorough questionnaires about their lives. They were asked about what they call a “forgivingness tendency.” Are you the type to forgive and forget when issues — big or small — crop up? It’s a personality type, Toussaint said.

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Next, the team measured lifetime accumulated stress from 100 different areas of life, such as financial woes, breakups and divorces, deaths in the family, or any other traumatic events, such as sexual assault or car accidents.

Finally, physical and mental health was accounted for. Volunteers answered questions about dealing with symptoms of depression, feeling worthless, anxious or upset. They were also asked about how often they caught a cold, logged sick days or grappled with common aches, pains, trouble sleeping and lethargy.

“We looked for the relationships between stress, forgiving and health and found what you’d expect: stress is bad for mental and physical health and forgiveness is good,” Toussaint said.

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But keep in mind, there is a reason why we have stress in our lives. It keeps us challenged and adaptive. Think of having to make a last-minute move while in rush hour on the highway or delivering a speech, Toussaint said.

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Sometimes the stress is prolonged, such as managing a months-long, high-stakes project at work. That’s when the chronic stress sets in, your happiness takes a beating and you, quite literally, feel the burden weighing you down.

“The inability to forgive is a lot like this. When we have something bad happen, and someone has treated us really poorly, unfortunately the event itself might be short-lived but the aftermath you experience can go on for decades,” Toussaint told Global News.

He’s met many people through his research who have talked about business deals gone awry or nasty breakups that they can’t forgive and still ruminate on.

“The way I know it’s really bad unforgiveness is when it’s the last thing I think of when I go to bed at night and the first thing I think of when I wake up. It’s an unrelenting nature that’s especially bad,” he said.

Once you’re able to forgive, Toussaint promises the act can reverse and relieve any bad symptoms on your mental and physical health. When you finish a task that’s been hanging over your head for months, you feel a weight lifted off your shoulders. Forgiveness offers the same sentiment, only magnified, he described.

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It’s a cathartic moment too, he said. In interviews with people he’s studied, they’d reported feeling lighter in their step, thankful to let go of the anger, vengeance and hurt and a sense of self-control over their lives.

Some people even reported feeling like a different person on the other end. Toussaint calls it a “change of heart.”

Toussaint is hoping to expand his research to see if it applies to all age groups and walks of life. In his ideal world, forgiveness would be worked into coping mechanisms for those living with trauma.

Right now, people turn to exercise, meditation or prayer, for example. There could be a home for learning to forgive in this category, too.

Toussaint’s full findings were published in the Journal of Health Psychology.

How to forgive:

Forgiveness is a tough nut to crack, Toussaint acknowledges. But there are steps you can take to try to let go.

Build a positive environment: You can’t begin the process of forgiveness if you’re swept up in a whirlwind of negativity. Toussaint calls it “negative quicksand” that pulls you under. Instead, think about what you do when you’re decompressing, and not just for the evening with a beer or a nap. You could head to a cabin for some quiet time or sign up for baking classes. This will stop you from ruminating and create a “positive feedback loop.”

Consider what the forgiveness means to you: It’s for your own well-being and not for someone else, Toussaint said. You don’t have to reconcile with the person who hurt you in this process – sometimes that’s a bad idea that could make things worse. It’s about purging the negative you were clinging onto.

Have empathy, humbleness and gratitude: Toussaint calls these characteristics the three pillars that prop up forgiveness. You’re human and bound to hurt others, too. Remind yourself that you’ll one day hope for forgiveness when you’re trying to forgive in the moment.

In our thoughts we often belittle the person who wronged us, degrading them until they’re no longer human in some ways. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes to try to understand their point of view.

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Finally, be grateful for what you have. Some people who struggle with forgiving take things for granted, Toussaint said.

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