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Forgive and be well?

The act of pardoning can boost health of body and mind, studies show. But some say the forgiveness movement goes too far.

December 31, 2007|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

Close your eyes and think of someone who has hurt you. The offense may be profound or small but deeply painful, a single arrow to your heart or a thousand wounding slights. The perpetrator may be a stranger -- the guy who caused your accident, the gang-banger who took your child. More likely, it will be someone close and trusted. The sister who killed herself. The parent who lashed out, the spouse mired in addiction, an unfaithful lover.

Maybe it's the boss who's a tyrant, the business partner who's an idiot, the trickster who seduced you. It might even be yourself.

Let all the anger, hurt and resentment you feel for that wrongdoer bubble to the surface. Seethe, shout, savor it. Feel your heart pounding, your blood boiling, your stomach churning and your thoughts racing in dark directions.

OK, stop. Now, forgive your offender. Don't just shed the bitterness and drop the recrimination, but empathize with his plight, wish him well and move on -- whether he's sorry or not.

University of Wisconsin psychologist Robert D. Enright, the guru of what many are calling a new science of forgiveness, calls this final step "making a gesture of goodness" to a wrongdoer. It's the culmination of a process that, he insists, "you've got to be able to see through to the end."

But why, exactly, would you do that? For the good of your soul? To hold the family or business together, to make the world a better place?

A growing corps of researchers thinks they have it. Forgiveness -- a virtue embraced by almost every religious tradition as a balm for the soul -- may be medicine for the body, they suggest. In less than a decade, those preaching and studying forgiveness have amassed an impressive slate of findings on its possible health benefits.

They have shown that "forgiveness interventions" -- often just a couple of short sessions in which the wounded are guided toward positive feelings for an offender -- can improve cardiovascular function, diminish chronic pain, relieve depression and boost quality of life among the very ill.

An AIDS patient who has forgiven the person presumed to have transmitted the virus is more likely to care for him or herself and less likely to engage in unprotected sex. Those more inclined to pardon the transgressions of others have been found to have lower blood pressure, fewer depressive symptoms and, once they hit late middle age, better overall mental and physical health than those who do not forgive easily.

Collectively, researchers say, these findings suggest that failure to forgive may, over a lifetime, boost a person's risk for heart disease, mental illness and other ills -- and, conversely, that forgiving others may improve health. Like proper nutrition and exercise, forgiveness appears to be a behavior that a patient can learn, exercise and repeat as needed to prevent disease and preserve health.

"Who would have thunk it -- that something locked away in religious culture could be turned into a secular training program," says psychologist Fred Luskin, director of Stanford University's Forgiveness Projects and a leading researcher in the field who teaches groups -- many of them bound together in the workplace -- to forgive offenses large and small. "It's a skill that can be taught."

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Health-forgiveness link

Psychologist Loren Toussaint of Luther University in Decorah, Iowa, and colleagues were the first to establish a long-term link between people's health and their propensity to forgive.

Their national survey, published in the Journal of Adult Development in 2001, found forgiveness rare enough: Only 52% of Americans said they had forgiven others for hurtful acts. But willingness of young respondents to forgive showed no link to health; that propensity began to make a difference as respondents approached middle age. The survey found that those 45 and older who forgave others were more likely to report having better overall mental and physical health than those who did not.

Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Commonwealth Virginia University and a leading researcher on the links between forgiveness and health, has put many a study subject through the paces of pardoning and measured the resulting physiological effect.

Worthington is a believer, both in the goodness of forgiveness and its power to influence health and wellness. The first part of that conviction springs from his Christian upbringing, he says. But he insists the latter has been forged by studies that rigorously test whether forgiveness -- including the replacement of hostility and negative feelings with "compassion, empathy or love" for the offender -- can blunt or reverse the physiological stress of chronic anger.

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