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Forgive and Forget: Prescription for Better Health, Happiness

Forgiveness used to be for wimps, but things are different now.

Dr. Robert Karen knows a thing or two about forgiveness. Karen has written two books about the subject. His most recent book, The Forgiving Self: The Road from Resentment to Connection (Doubleday), was released earlier this year.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Karen was asked to discuss whether he thought the act of forgiveness made people healthier.
“It’s probably true that being a good forgiver correlates with lower blood pressure and less internal wear-and-tear,” Karen told the Times. “There’s plenty of evidence that our emotions affect our physical well-being.”
Dr. Porter Storey, medical director of the Hospice at Texas Medical Center, concurred, according an article on American Medical News’ Web site, amednews.com. Storey is part of the Campaign for Forgiveness Research and is leading a research project about forgiveness among terminally ill cancer patients.
In his 20 years of caring for dying patients, he has observed “a dramatic reduction in anxiety and distress” in patients who have been able to let go of past anger and hurt, the article read.
“It can dramatically improve a lot of parameters in patients much more effectively than expensive medications, and it has essentially no bad side effects,” Storey said.
Dr. Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet of Hope College in Holland, Mich., thinks there may be health benefits associated with forgiveness. Witvliet, an assistant professor of psychology, is researching the physiological effects of forgiveness and unforgiveness, amednews.com reported.
In her research, Witvliet has found that “unforgiving thoughts” can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure.
Witvliet has found that forgiveness doesn’t offer any long-term effects, but she said “the cumulative effects of being forgiving … may buffer and even enhance health over time.”
But for Karen, the physiological effects forgiveness may have on one’s health are only part of the picture.
“Talking about (forgiveness) this way bothers me because it suggests that the only reward to leading a healthy emotional life is that you live longer,” he told the Times. “Linking forgiveness with physical health can be confusing to people. What’s healthy is finding a way to embody and live through our secure and loving selves.”
Karen cautioned that is not “something you just decide to do.”
“It develops out of a real struggle with our psychology,” Karen said. “It’s not like, ‘Well, I’m going to be more forgiving now because my blood pressure is too high.'”
The writer of a recent Publishers Weekly book review commented that Karen’s book shows readers “the real effort required for this apparently simple act, revealing anew how far and deep that effort can take us.” The reviewer added that the book won’t appeal to people looking for an instant solution.
Forgiveness is a process, not a single step, Karen said.
“Usually, it takes a long time before we discover the love of someone who has hurt us,” he told the Times. “First comes anger, and very often a sense of persecution. We go through all the typical, horrible stuff to which human nature and human psychology are prone.”
Still, in Karen’s view, the results are well worth the effort.
“I think eventually, if we are lucky, we get over our resentments,” he said. “Even though this bad thing happened, or we don’t have this person in our lives anymore. We look back with a warmth that recognizes what was good and what remains good and what we want to hold onto.”
Jared Porter is BCE’s reporting intern.