I’ve always been a forgiving person.
From high school “mean girls” to a cheating boyfriend and a tyrant of an employer, I have almost too easily let go of grudges shortly after I formed them.
I just never felt there was a point to hold on to them or lament for too long after the fact. I’m far from perfect myself, after all.
I may be doing something right, because a new study in the Journal of Health Psychology finds that being a forgiving person can protect against stress and the toll it can have on mental health.
The key is knowing how to forgive not only other people, but yourself as well.
Researchers explored the effects of lifetime stress on a person’s mental health, and focused on how more forgiving people fared compared to people who weren’t so forgiving.
To assess their level of lifetime stress, their tendency to forgive and their mental and physical health, researchers asked 148 young adults to fill out a series questionnaires. Not surprisingly, people who experienced higher levels of stress over their lifetime were worse off mentally and physically.
What was surprising was the discovery that if people were highly forgiving of both themselves and others, that sole characteristic virtually eliminated the connection between stress and mental illness.
“It’s almost entirely erased – it’s statistically zero,” says study author Loren Toussaint, an associate professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa. “If you don’t have forgiving tendencies, you feel the raw effects of stress in an unmitigated way. You don’t have a buffer against that stress.”
Basically, practicing forgiveness is the key to feeling better about life.
“Forgiveness takes that bad connection between stress and mental illness and makes it zero,” he says. “I think most people want to feel good and it offers you the opportunity to do that.”
Exactly how a forgiving personality protects a person from stress isn’t simple to determine. According to researchers, however, those who are more forgiving may adopt better coping skills to manage stress, or their reaction to major sources of stress may be dulled. Due to the small sample size, more research is needed to understand the cause and effect relationship.
According to Toussaint, however, forgiveness can “100 per cent” be learned. He points to the fact that many therapists try to work towards forgiveness in sessions.
The way I see it, you have two choices: to forgive, or not to forgive. The former takes less energy, frankly. The less negative energy that flows through you, the less stressed you’ll be.
To be honest, though, I think it goes beyond being a forgiving person. It’s about what being a forgiving person is about, and that’s not being one to hold a grudge or lament about things in the past that are out of one’s control. A key to happiness is the ability to live in the moment, after all – something that’s impossible if you’re still resentful of something that happened in the past.
With that said, I will leave you with this:
“Unease, anxiety, tension, stress worry — all forms of fear — are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms on non-forgiveness are caused by too much past and not enough present.” – Eckhart Tolle.
Some grievances, misdoings and minor injustices are better left where they happened: in the past.