Deciding to forgive someone is linked to subsequent improvements in mental well-being, according to a longitudinal study published in BMC Psychology. The researchers found that spiritually motivated forgiveness was associated with greater positive affect and lower depressive symptoms, but was not related to changes in physical health.
Former studies have offered evidence that the act of forgiveness evokes powerful mental health benefits. While some researchers have suggested that these benefits may extend to physical health, the findings remain unclear. Moreover, longitudinal data on the positive effects of forgiveness is lacking.
Study authors Katelyn N. G. Long and her colleagues set out to examine whether forgiveness would be associated with subsequent improvement in a range of mental and physical health indicators. Longitudinal data was obtained from the Nurses’ Health Study II which surveyed female nurses from 14 US states every two years, beginning in 1989. The total number of participants in the current analysis was 54,703, and the nurses were an average of 53 years old.
Long and her colleagues used the 2008 survey as their baseline since it included a measure of forgiveness. The survey specifically assessed forgiveness that was spiritually motivated, with the item, “Because of my spiritual or religious beliefs, I have forgiven those who hurt me.” A total of 19 psychological and physical health outcomes were also obtained using data from the 2011, 2013, and 2015 waves.
After various statistical analyses, the researchers found that participants who reported forgiving more frequently showed subsequent improvements in positive affect and social integration compared to those who said they forgave never or seldomly. They also showed lower depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, loneliness, and hopelessness. These results remained when controlling for various confounders such as age, race, marital status, religious service attendance, and income.
The researchers found no convincing evidence, however, that forgiveness was linked to subsequent differences in physical health-related outcomes.
These results greatly add to the current literature, with the use of longitudinal data virtually ruling out reverse causation. Indeed, previous studies may have been capturing reverse causation when presenting evidence that forgiveness improves physical health. The authors illustrate, “While forgiveness may result in better physical health, it may be the case that those in better physical health or with better health behaviors might be more likely to forgive.”
They also discuss that their study was only able to assess health-related outcomes occurring within a 7-year window. This may not have been enough time to observe the physical health consequences of forgiveness, especially considering the fact that stress-related physical health effects manifest themselves over time.
The researchers note that the reason why forgiveness has this positive effect on well-being remains uncertain, but that some of the literature suggests that emotional regulation, self-regulation, rumination, empathy, and anger may be implicated in the process. The authors say that future research should explore these possibilities using mediation analysis.
“Findings from this study suggest that promoting forgiveness might be an innovative focus for public health interventions aimed at improving mental and psychosocial well-being,” Long and colleagues say, later adding, “In a time of global pandemics, divisiveness, disparity, and uncertainty, perhaps the promotion of forgiveness would help support needed gains in our collective mental and social well-being.”
The study, “Forgiveness of others and subsequent health and well-being in mid-life: a longitudinal study on female nurses,” was authored by Katelyn N. G. Long, Everett L. Worthington, Tyler J. VanderWeele, and Ying Chen.