Forgiveness and health: It’s complicated

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Happy couple

Most religions preach forgiveness. Holding grudges, remembering wrongs, and not letting things go leads to poor spiritual health (according to such religions). While scientists cannot test claims about spiritual health, they can test physical health. Can forgiveness lead to improved health? Researcher Michael McFarland (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues posed this question, and found that forgiveness does positively correlate with health over time.

Previous research into the health benefits of forgiveness tended to ignore the social and economic context of its participants. In order to control for such variables, McFarland and his fellow researchers paid special attention to the variables of race and neighborhood deterioration. As such, they wanted to see if the relationship between forgiveness and health changes when race and living environment enter the equation.

For race, the researchers decided to contrast older blacks with older whites. They chose blacks for three reasons. First, older blacks tend to have intricate social support networks, meaning that they need to learn how to forgive in order to maintain these networks. Second, older blacks likely experienced harsh racism in their lifetime, which again makes forgiveness a daily concern. Finally, the emotional effects of forgiveness (higher levels of positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions) may differ for a population group that experienced traumatic stress, such as older blacks who lived through racism.

As for neighborhood, evolutionary psychology suggests that evolution has hardwired human brains with the capacity for both forgiveness and revenge. Which one triggers depends on the environment. For example, studies on individuals living in Philadelphia’s impoverished neighborhoods indicate that any signs of forgiveness mark the forgiver as weak and easy prey. In this culture, one should seek revenge for even the slightest transgression in order to maintain one’s place in the food chain. In short, social context matters when it comes to studying forgiveness.

With these factors in mind, the researchers proposed two hypotheses. First, (a) better self-health, (b) less alcohol use, and (c) fewer chronic health problems will correlate with forgiveness more strongly for blacks than whites. Second, greater neighborhood deterioration will mean lower positive health effects correlating with forgiveness.

To test these hypotheses, the researchers used data from the Religion, Aging, and Health Survey, a survey which consisted of black and white participants at least 66 years old. Due to the lack of a measure that can handle various religious traditions (a problem currently being fixed), only Christians and those without any religious affiliation were included in this study. The key measures (all self-reported) included health, alcohol use, chronic health problems over the past year, forgiveness of others, religious attendance (as in frequency), finances, age, education, marital status, self-esteem, and neighborhood deterioration. Since older people tend to overestimate the quality of their neighborhood, the interviewer and not the participant answered this item.

After running the numbers, they found that forgiveness correlated with better health for blacks but not for whites. For blacks, forgiveness positively correlated with good health and negatively correlated with alcohol use and chronic health problems, but these health correlations diminished or vanished altogether for blacks living in bad neighborhoods. Forgiveness does correlate with good health, but environment can negate such benefits.

The authors acknowledged four limitations of their study. First, “forgiveness” and “neighborhood deterioration” can be measured in a variety of ways other than the ones used in their study. Second, the social order or disorder of a neighborhood may matter more than its physical condition. Third, the effect of alcohol on forgiveness needs further exploration. Last, only Christians (and in this case, almost entirely Protestants) and those without religion could participate in this study, meaning that these results do not necessarily apply to other religions.

Clearly, much work remains to be done about the health benefits of forgiveness. As with all social science studies, data imposes limits on the breadth and depth of the conclusions one would like to draw. One must continue to ask ever more precise questions, and only to stop asking questions would be unforgivable.

For more see “Forgiveness of Others and Health: Do Race and Neighborhood Matter?” in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.