MARY GANZEL: Forgiving others has healthy benefits

HEALTH AND FITNESS: Forgiveness not only conveys love, it is a healthy choice

Mary Ganzel

Mary Ganzel

Although holidays can be some of the most wonderful times of the year for family and friends, coming together in the same home or same social gathering can be stressful at times. While you may get along with most people in your office, church or in your family, there could be some people with whom there is an uncomfortable relationship. If there is someone whom you are unable to forgive for past circumstances, I’d like to offer some reasons why forgiveness is not only the loving choice, but is also a healthy choice.

The older we get the more opportunities there are for people to disappoint us or hurt us in some way. However, we have a choice on how we respond to this disappointment and we can choose to forgive. When you forgive someone, you make the choice to give up your desire for revenge and feelings of resentment. You also stop judging the person who caused you the hurt. Instead of revenge, resentment, and judgment, you show generosity, compassion, and kindness. In forgiveness, you don’t forget that the offense occurred nor do you excuse it. You substitute your negative with positive feelings, thoughts, and behavior (Enright et al., 1998).

Some individuals are naturally forgiving toward others and themselves. It’s easier for some people to respond with tolerance to a person who’s offended them in some way. Those who don’t have this ability may find it more difficult to grant forgiveness when they’re hurt or harmed, but it is possible for them to do so, depending on the situation.

Due to my faith, I believe forgiveness is a required of all of us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus described the importance of forgiveness. In Matthew 6:14 Jesus said, “For if you forgive people their trespasses (their reckless and willful sins, leaving them, letting them go, and giving up resentment), your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” As someone who also believes in the value of education and scientific research as it relates to living a healthier life, I enjoy finding research that shares how one’s health can be positively affected if we follow Biblical principles.

Recent research on the health benefits of forgiveness shows that people who can make the mental shift to forgive may benefit in ways they didn’t anticipate — namely, by living longer. In a study called “Forgive to Live,” Luther College psychologist Loren Toussaint and colleagues investigated the relationships among forgiveness, religiousness, spirituality, health, and mortality in a national U.S. sample of 1,500 adults age 66 and older. The study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, was the first to test the benefits of forgiveness to a long life.

Because the questions about religiosity and spirituality were specific to the Christian faith, Toussaint and colleagues restricted their sample to current and former Christians and nonreligious individuals. The original sample was followed up three years after they first participated, which allowed the researchers to determine whether earlier religious and forgiveness beliefs predicted later health problems and mortality. Toussaint and his colleagues tested the life-sustaining benefits of forgiveness with a measure that assessed these seven components. See how you would rate on each of these:

— Conditional forgiveness of others. Do you feel that you can’t forgive others until they apologize to you? Do you agree to forgive others only if they promise not to do what they did any more?

— Unconditional forgiveness of others. Can you forget as well as forgive? Do you expect that others don’t have to do anything special to deserve your forgiveness?

— Unforgiveness of others. Do you hold a grudge toward other people? How often do you feel resentful toward others for what they’ve done?

— Belief in God’s conditional forgiveness. In order to be forgiven, must you promise God that you won’t make the same mistake again? Must you ask God for forgiveness?

— Belief in God’s unconditional forgiveness. Do you believe that God will forgive you, no matter what?

— Ability to forgiveness yourself. Do you still feel bad about things you’ve done in the past?

— Feeling forgiven by others. Do you think that people still blame you for your past mistakes or hurts you’ve caused them?

After controlling for religiosity, social class, and health-related behaviors (smoking and drinking), the one quality of forgiveness that predicted mortality was conditional forgiveness of others. Participants who stated that they would only forgive others on conditional terms were more likely to die earlier than people who forgave unconditionally.

Why would an inability to forgive others without an apology or promise to change predict earlier age of death? When the authors delved into this finding, they suggested that people who make these demands for forgiveness continue to harbor resentment and grudges, emotions that can impair their heart’s health. Continually nursing those negative feelings keeps your stress level high, and it is that stress that ultimately exacts a cost of earlier death. It’s important then to strive for an attitude of unconditional forgiveness. This concept is easier to understand when forgiveness is broken down into specific components.

One of the obvious problems associated with conditional forgiveness is that it requires a response from the person who’s wronged you. In many cases, this is not going to happen. Perhaps the person who wronged you is out of touch, no longer alive, or has no interest in apologizing. When your act of bestowing forgiveness is dependent on another person’s actions, you are not in control of the situation. In contrast, if you decide to forgive the wrongdoer without an apology, then you are in control. You can start the process of forgiving at any time. The sooner the psychological healing begins, the more likely it is that your health will reap the benefits.

Earlier research on forgiveness and measures of health showed that forgiveness in general is positively associated with better health in terms of the heart, hormones, and immune system. There are also psychological benefits to forgiveness. People who forgive more readily are less likely to be depressed and anxious, and more likely to be happy. These physical and psychological qualities could all be key in predicting a longer life. The way you respond when you feel wronged, or when you seek to forgive yourself, has a variety of health-boosting effects.

Choose to forgive yourself and others this holiday season. Appreciate others for the differences and “flavor” they bring to your life. By letting go of ill feelings and deciding not to let others have control of your emotions, you have a great likelihood of finding peace this holiday season. Consider these words from Proverbs 17: 9. “He who covers and forgives an offense seeks love, but he who repeats or harps on a matter separates even close friends.”

Mary Ganzel is senior program director at the Albany Area YMCA. She has a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Kentucky and has worked in the fitness industry for more than 25 years. She’s been certified through multiple national organizations over the years as a personal trainer, exercise test technologist, health promotion director, group exercise instructor, Cycle Reebok instructor and Pilates instructor through Cooper Institute, American College of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, Aerobic Fitness Association of America and the Young Mens Christian Association.