To Forgive is Divine
Throughout the ages, the wisest sages have touted the healing power of forgiveness. “To err is human, to forgive is divine,” is one well-known example of this timeless advice. It’s not necessarily about the person seeking—or receiving—forgiveness, either. Rather, it’s ultimately about one’s self. To forgive releases us from a toxic burden, and sets us free as much as it does the offending party.
But that’s just folk wisdom. What does science have to say about forgiveness? To find out, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia examined how forgiveness affects the risk of depression among older adults. Forgiveness, they found, was linked to a reduced risk of depression among women, but not men. Even if women felt unforgiven by others, when they themselves forgave others, they were less likely to report symptoms of depression.
Older men, however, were most likely to experience symptoms of depression if they forgave someone, but felt unforgiven themselves. "It doesn't feel good when we perceive that others haven't forgiven us for something," said study co-author Christine Proulx. "When we think about forgiveness and characteristics of people who are forgiving—altruistic, compassionate, empathetic—these people forgive others and seem to compensate for the fact that others aren't forgiving them. It sounds like moral superiority, but it's not about being a better person. It's 'I know that this hurts because it's hurting me,' and those people are more likely to forgive others, which appears to help decrease levels of depression, particularly for women.”
Investigators focused on older people, because they reasoned they’re more likely to be reflective about their lives. Ashley Ermer is a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Science. She analyzed data from the Religion, Aging, and Health Survey, a national survey of more than 1,000 adults ages 67 and older. "As people get older, they become more forgiving," Ermer said. "Our population also predominately was Christian, which may influence individuals' willingness to forgive and could function differently among individuals with different beliefs.”
That may be so, but I suspect that the sages of the ages have been right all along, regardless on one’s beliefs: Forgiveness is divine.
Ashley E. Ermer, Christine M. Proulx. Unforgiveness, depression, and health in later life: the protective factor of forgivingness. Aging & Mental Health, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1080/13607863.2015.1060942