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What This All Means

The Science of Forgiveness

When we think about forgiveness we are immediately met with some questions. What exactly is forgiveness? What makes it possible? Why is it so important? Is it always a good thing, or is there a downside? DiscoverForgiveness.org is the product of bringing together leading scholars to highlight discoveries made in forgiveness science over recent decades to offer answers to some of the pressing questions about forgiveness.

What is Forgiveness?

For centuries, scholars have debated the meaning, value, and appropriate conditions of forgiveness. Your personal definition is likely influenced by your morals, faith-beliefs, and political ideologies, and it may differ in some ways from what science has discovered about forgiveness. Nonetheless, many modern day scientists have arrived at some agreement both on what forgiveness is and what it is not.

One common scholarly definition of forgiveness is that it is a conscious decision to let go of negative and build positive thoughts and feelings, and sometimes, motivations toward an offender. The decision to forgive can be made before positive thoughts and emotions develop. Forgiveness can be directed toward those who have hurt you or one’s self because of wrong you have done to others and/or yourself. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, condoning, excusing, or denying hurtful behavior. You can forgive without receiving an apology or reconciling. Forgiveness and justice are also not mutually exclusive.

How Does Forgiveness Happen?

Forgiveness is a response to a deep, personal, and unfair injury and often takes time, effort, and courage. It does not require an apology from the offender. The first step is admitting that you have been hurt and expressing the feelings, such as anger and resentment, associated with the hurt.

There are many ways forgiveness occurs. A decision to forgive through engagement with one’s religious and/or spiritual practices can bring about forgiveness. People with no religious affiliation may find meditative, journaling, or contemplative practices useful. Psychological science has brought forth various models of forgiveness (Process Model, REACH model, Forgive for Good model). There is significant evidence in support of the efficacy of these methods for bringing about notable gains in forgiveness. Mental health professionals can also provide support during the forgiveness journey.

What Can Forgiveness Do?

Science informs us that forgiveness is connected to a host of often overlooked mental and physical health benefits, as well as, social well-being. Some research has even shown that forgiving thoughts have the capacity to change our most basic physiological processes such as our heart rate, muscle tension, fight-or-flight response, and neurobiological functioning. Forgiveness has also been linked to better age-related cognitive functioning and even to longevity. Lack of forgiveness has been linked with mental illnesses, such as depression, panic and anxiety attacks, and stress.

How is Forgiveness Measured?

Measurement is key to any scientific endeavor and develops from one’s definition of the specific idea. The science of forgiveness has steadily progressed in developing precise measures of multiple dimensions of forgiveness. Several common self-report measurement tools are available to assess forgiveness of others, self-forgiveness, and divine forgiveness. Behavioral measures of forgiveness have included the use of some role-playing games and other imaginative exercises. Self-report and behavioral tools have been extensively examined to ensure accuracy.

The science of forgiveness is an ever-evolving field. As with other areas of science, there are many applications of this knowledge. Educators, religious leaders, mental health professionals, business-leaders and employers, as well as neighbors, family members, parents and spouses can all benefit from learning more about forgiveness — what it is and is not, and how it leads to healing.

It is only one of many options for responding to an injustice, and much more remains to be learned about the process of forgiveness and how it leads to healing for the one injured. But we know forgiveness is individually and socially productive. Learning about and applying forgiveness lessons in your own life can bring not only individual benefits, but also contribute to a more compassionate and peaceful world.