The Wall Street Journal is not generally a source of information about positive psychology, but a recent article described forgiveness in some detail. Forgiveness is of course an important tenet of positive psychology. The March 21, 2016 issue contained an article entitled The Healing Power of Forgiveness, Things we’ve done – and things done to us – carry tremendous weight. Let them go.The article is largely based upon a recent study done at the University of Missouri College of Human Environmental Science that focused upon older adults. This group was chosen because when people grow older they commonly review their lives, which brings up things they feel good about and things they don’t. As the article states, “In the absence of forgiveness, an offense that was committed against us, or some pain that we caused others, can replay in our minds, causing continuing anger or remorse that is a recipe for bitterness and bad health.”
Views from Medicine and Clinical Psychology
Interestingly, the article does not cite the work of any positive psychology researchers per se, but nonetheless quotes authoritative sources like Amit Sood, a Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Positive psychologists would likely agree with Prof. Sood’s statements that: “When you forgive, it isn’t saying that the other person is right. It isn’t justifying or condoning what the other person did.” Rather, Sood states that forgiveness “is acknowledging that you have decided to forego anger and resentment, and that any future relationship with the offending party will be on your own terms.”
On the other hand, the article quotes clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring who says it isn’t always possible to forgive. “If the other person isn’t sorry and hasn’t made meaningful amends, the hurt party often can’t and won’t forgive. They are left not forgiving, and hurting and hating.” In this situation Dr. Spring recommends that the hurt party, often with the help of psychotherapy, try to accept the situation on their own terms and recognize the magnitude of the violation but not let the unfairness become obsessive.In contrast to the position of Dr. Spring, many positive psychologists would say that even when the transgressor shows neither remorse nor tries to make amends, forgiveness is both possible and, indeed, beneficial to the hurt party.
Views from Positive Psychology
In some ways it is easy to understand the reasons why people are reluctant to forgive. Martin Seligman explained that people don’t forgive because: 1) they feel it is unjust to forgive; 2) forgiving is showing love to the transgressor but not to the victim; and 3) forgiveness blocks revenge, which is an emotion many people hold onto tightly. While these reasons appear to be self-evident and understandable, they stem in part from a misconception of forgiveness.
It is important to understand that forgiveness does not mean re-establishing a relationship with the transgressor or pardoning them. By no means is it excusing their action or minimizing it by looking to extenuating circumstances that may have prompted their act, and it is not forgetting the wrong. An injured party is not forgiving when they feel they want the transgressor to be hurt or miserable, or when they want to stay as far away as possible from the transgressor.Even though the natural tendencies mentioned above make it difficult to forgive, there are real benefits to the hurt party when they forgive. McCullough, Bono, Root, and other researchers at the University of Miami found that people who forgive score lower on measures of anxiety, depression and hostility, and at the same time have more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions. Even victims of crimes benefit from forgiving the criminal. Victims who participated in face-to-face restorative justice conferences with the criminal perpetrator were 23 times more likely to feel they received an apology than those who did not participate in such a conference, and were four times less likely to have a lingering desire for revenge.
Despite the statements of Dr. Spring that it may be impossible to forgive when the transgressor neither apologizes nor makes amends, it appears to me that the positive psychology approach, which does not require action by the transgressor, is a superior way to deal with the negative emotions the transgressor’s act produced.
Bono, G., Root, L., & McCullough, M. (2007). Forgiveness, feeling connected to others, and well-being: Two longitudinal studies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(10), 1-14. DOI: 10.1177/0146167207310025
Cole, D. (2016, March 21). The Healing Power of Forgiveness, Things we’ve done – and things done to us – carry tremendous weight. Let them go. The Wall Street Journal, p. R8.
Ermer, A.E., Proulx, C.M. (2015) Unforgiveness, Depression, and Health in Later Life: The Protective Factor of Forgivingness, Aging and Mental Health. Abstract.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books. See page 171.
McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., Tabak, B. A., & van Oyen Witvliet, C. (2011). Forgiveness. In S. Lopez & C. R. Snyder, The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (Oxford Library of Psychology). Oxford University Press. See page 430.
Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. See page 77.
Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Letting go of a hope for a better past symphony of love
Light through the clouds courtesy of John 9:25
One of the global stones of forgiveness courtesy of kmardahl