Discovering the Skill of Forgiveness

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Forgiveness is a seminal religious virtue, but can it be scientifically justified as well? This question is asked by award-winning author Megan Feldman Bettencourt in her new book, Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World. Drawing on innovative research and stories from both individuals and entire communities, Bettencourt concludes that, when observed appropriately, forgiveness can save lives and maybe lead to a better world.

A key question she explores is whether there is scientific evidence that forgiveness improves physical and psychological wellbeing. The answer is yes, not least as a result of the research supported by Sir John Templeton, she notes. In 1997, the John Templeton Foundation announced A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, a funding initiative for scientists who were interested in using rigorous scientific protocol to determine the effects of forgiveness on the body and mind. The campaign was led by Dr. Everett Worthington, a psychology professor, and sparked a wider interest in the subject, allowing it to slowly begin to enter mainstream science. “While in 1998 there were 58 empirical studies on forgiveness in the research literature, by 2005, when the campaign concluded, there were 950,” Bettencourt writes. “Reviewing the scientific evidence for the usefulness and health benefits of forgiveness, I felt increasingly hopeful… I wanted to learn more about how I could choose to nurture the more forgiving side of my nature, and how we might be able to make forgiveness a more common choice as a society.”

One of the scientists involved in the Campaign was Dr. Robert Enright, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 2009, his team published a definitive study that explored the relationship between forgiveness and physical health. “Their analysis found that when cardiac patients with coronary heart disease underwent forgiveness therapy, the rate of blood flow to their hearts improved more than that of the control group, which received only standard medical treatment and counseling about diet and exercise,” Bettencourt says.

Other studies as part of the Campaign found that empathy and “forgivability” activate parts of the brain associated with problem-solving and reason; that forgiveness elevates mood and increases optimism, whereas not forgiving is linked to depression, anxiety, and hostility; and that vengeance and forgiveness are natural responses, and either response is a result of specific circumstances.

As Bettencourt concludes in an article for Psychology Today, “My own sense of forgiveness eventually landed closer to Webster’s definition: to give up resentment. This was radically different from the moralistic platitudes I had long associated with the concept. From this vantage point, forgiveness becomes not something we should do to be ‘good,’ but rather a crucial skill in the pursuit of a healthy, fulfilling life.”