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The Science of Forgiveness

Social harm and conflict considerably affect our psychological and physical well-being. While we tend to ruminate and dwell on injustice, studies show that forgiving people who have caused us harm reduces personal distress and fosters happiness.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or condoning the offence; it doesn't necessarily even mean reconciling with the person who hurt us. It means changing our attitude towards this original hurt so that it doesn't continue to wound us.

So here is how researchers define forgiveness and some key scientific findings;

What Constitutes Forgiveness

Scientists define and measure forgiveness in terms of four components;

  1. Acceptance of the transgression or the harm that somebody has perpetrated against you. And that does not mean condoning the action and resolving the person of any responsibility.

  2. You no longer are oriented towards punishment or seeking revenge. Yet this does not mean forgetting what was perpetrated against you.

  3. There is a decline in trying to avoid that person. And that does not mean necessarily reconciling or returning to a cooperative state with the person.

  4. Feeling compassion towards that individual in the sense that the person who’s harmed you may have harmed you out of their own suffering, and you understand and feel compassion for that person. And that does not mean for sure that you give them the excuse and justification for their harm.

Benefits of Forgiveness

Researchers have found that forgiveness

  • Declines the fight or flight response, reduces heart rate and blood pressure

  • Reduce stress, anxiety, depression, anger and hurt

  • Increases optimism, hope, compassion, and physical vitality

  • Improves personal relationships with family, friends and community

Forgiveness: A Trainable Skill

Created by Robert Enright, Ph.D. one of the world’s leading forgiveness researchers, the following process gives us the opportunity to practice forgiveness.

Keep in mind that the process and pace will be different from person to person, and sometimes, it might be helpful to couple it with therapy, especially if one is working through a traumatic event.

  • Make a list of people who have hurt you, order them from the least who caused you pain to the most. Start the below process with the person who hurt you the least and once you complete the forgiveness process with that person, select the next person and move up the list until you are forgiving the person who hurt you the most.

  • Reflect on the psychological and physical harm caused by the offense of this person. Recognize that what happened was not okay, and allow yourself to feel the negative emotions that come up.

  • When you feel ready, start the act of mercy towards this person by consciously trying to reduce resentment towards them and instead try to offer them kindness and generosity. And while forgiving acknowledge that this person does not necessarily deserve your mercy, it is a gift to your offender for the purpose of changing the relationship between yourself and them. Practicing Meta meditation (loving kindness) would be very helpful in this process.

  • Try to better understand the person’s pain and vulnerability, and this is again not to excuse the person or condone the offence, but understanding why people commit destructive actions helps us prevent such acts from occurring to us in the future. So try to think how was this person’s childhood, consider their relationship with their parents and siblings, what wounds have they suffered from that made them more likely to hurt you, what stresses that they were under at the time they hurt you.

  • Be aware and mindful of your emotions and if/when they start to gradually be softer towards the person.

  • Allow yourself to feel and bear the pain caused by the person and try not to spill that pain back onto the offender nor onto those around you including loved ones.

  • Start extending the act of mercy towards this person, this could be through offering them a smile, a returned phone call, or a good word about them to others. If it’s not safe for you to interact with the person, you can practice this again through Meta meditation or journaling.

  • Finally, this practice helps us cultivate empathy and compassion for people who suffer from injustices. Trying to find meaning and purpose in what you have experienced might motivate you to work to help those who are hurting or work towards preventing future injustices of a similar nature.


- 8 Keys to Forgiveness by Robert Enright (Author), Babette Rothschild (Foreword) – July 21, 2015.

- Baskin, T.W., & Enright, R. D. (2004). Intervention studies on forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82,79-90.


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