“Forgive and forget,” is a common phrase that we’ve all heard and probably said, but does it make sense? Of course we’ve also all been wronged and been wrong. From the moment we learn to talk, we’re taught to say we’re sorry. We learn to apologize, but do we ever learn to forgive? Forgiveness is an important topic worth exploring, especially in the context of health and well-being.
‘Forgive,’ is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, “giving up resentment of, or claim of requital for.” Clearly it’s more complicated. What isn’t complicated are the scientific studies illustrating the health benefits of forgiving. Forgiveness is linked with lower mortality rates, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol (the stress chemical in our brains) and a lower likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease. Forgiveness may even support a healthier immune system.
In addition to physical benefits, forgiveness is associated with psychological benefits as well. Overall well-being is linked with forgiveness, as are higher quality marriages and committed romantic relationships. Forgiveness is even related to better sleep.
In Spiritual Evolution, George Vaillant, MD., a professor of psychology at Harvard and pioneer of adult development, discusses the psychological benefits. He describes forgiveness as an end to a cycle of negativity which allows us to grow and heal. It’s a transformative experience:
“Suddenly, the fight-or-flight response of vengeance is replaced by the calming green pastures and still waters of peace.”
Forgiveness doesn’t come on demand and can’t be forced. It’s not asking for an apology, creating excuses for the wrongdoer or being a pushover. Contrary to the popular phrase, forgiveness does not require forgetting. Another important factor is time; forgiveness cannot be rushed.
There is no magic formula for forgiveness. It is personal, highly subjective and different for everyone. Studies show self-compassion and kindness are closely related to forgiveness of others. According to Vaillant, “empathy and the capacity to envision the future,” are also necessary. Ultimately, forgiveness is about letting go of the past and leaning into the future. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., in her book The How of Happiness, also underscores the importance of empathy. Lyubomirsky recommends cultivating empathy by remembering times when we were forgiven, and then envisioning what it will be like to forgive.
Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future. ~ Paul Boese