The Many Benefits of Forgiveness

father and son hugging

Betrayal, aggression, and just plain insensitivity: people can hurt us in a million ways, and forgiveness isn’t always easy. Whether you’ve been cut off in traffic, slighted by your mother-in-law, betrayed by a spouse, or badmouthed by a co-worker, most of us are faced with a variety of situations both serious and mundane that we can choose to ruminate over or forgive. But forgiveness, like so many things in life, is easier said than done.

The Challenge of Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be a challenge for several reasons. Sometimes forgiveness can be confused with condoning what someone has done to us: “That’s OK. Why not do it again?” Even for people who understand the distinction between accepting someone's bad behavior as "okay" and accepting that it happened, forgiveness can be difficult because these two are easily confused.

Forgiveness can also be difficult when the person who wronged us doesn’t seem to deserve our forgiveness. It can feel like you are letting them "off the hook." While this feeling is completely understandable, it's vital to remember that forgiveness allows us to let go of a connection we have to those who have wronged us and move forward—with or without them.

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that forgiveness benefits the forgiver more than the one who is forgiven.

Ultimately, forgiveness is especially challenging because it’s hard to let go of what happened. Forgiving someone who has committed unacceptable behavior can be difficult when we are having trouble letting go of anger or hurt surrounding the event itself.

The Importance of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is good for your heart—literally. One 2017 study from the Annals of Behavioral Medicine was the first to associate greater forgiveness with less stress and ultimately better mental health. Increases in forgiveness made for less perceived stress, which was followed by decreases in mental health symptoms (but not physical health symptoms).

Other research in 2017 showed that 'state' forgiveness --- an intentional, purpose-driven disposition bent toward forgiveness --- produced in those participants who undertook forgiveness perceived senses of mental well-being, which included reductions in negative affect, feeling positive emotions, experiencing positive relations with others, discerning sensibilities of spiritual growth, and identifying a sense of meaning and purpose in life as well as a greater sense of empowerment. 

Research reported slightly earlier, in 2015, linked forgiveness with the proverbial forgetting. Emotional, intentional forgiveness influenced subsequent incidental forgetting. Determined, purposeful emotional forgiveness causes forgetting and is an important first step in the forgiveness cascade.

To sum it up, forgiveness is good for your body, your relationships, and your place in the world. That’s reason enough to convince virtually anyone to do the work of letting go of anger and working on forgiveness.

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How to Forgive

Forgiveness may not always be easy, but it can be easier with a few exercises and the right mindset. First, keep in mind that forgiveness is something you do for yourself to sever your emotional attachment to what happened. (Think of taking your hand away from a hot burner on the stove—it remains hot, but you move away from it for your own safety.)

Also, remind yourself that you are moving forward, and forgiving this person allows them (or at least what they've done) to stay in the past as you move on. Journaling, prayer, or meditation, and loving-kindness meditation can all be helpful in easing yourself into forgiveness as well.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Toussaint LL, Shields GS, Slavich GM. Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process StudyAnn Behav Med. 2016;50(5):727–735. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9796-6

  2. Akhtar S, Dolan A, Barlow J. Understanding the Relationship Between State Forgiveness and Psychological Wellbeing: A Qualitative Study. J Relig Health. 2017;56(2):450–463. doi:10.1007/s10943-016-0188-9

  3. Lichtenfeld S, Buechner VL, Maier MA, Fernández-Capo M. Forgive and Forget: Differences between Decisional and Emotional Forgiveness. PLoS One. 2015;10(5):e0125561. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125561

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.