Note: Discover Forgiveness is a joint initiative of the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) and the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), supported by a Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council. This council includes representatives from around the world with interdisciplinary expertise in the science of forgiveness and related fields. With the goal of sharing how forgiveness science is interwoven across cultures, contexts, geographies, and traditions, the council has carefully curated the Discover Forgiveness library to make forgiveness research accessible and actionable for people and institutions around the world. In a series of blog posts on TWCF's website, council members, including Luther College's Loren Toussaint, Ph.D., offer insight into select pieces of research from the Discover Forgiveness collection. This piece was adapted from that series.
“I do not agree.”
I read that sentence and was immediately engulfed with immense disappointment quickly followed by more than a moment of anger and desire for vengeance. I had applied for a promotion at my place of work as a graduate student, and my supervisor “did not agree” that I was worthy of it. Wow, did that hurt.
But, what I didn’t realize was that in that moment, my blood pressure had sprang up in a way that made me feel and hear my pulse pounding in my head. Suddenly, I felt a rush of nervous energy and became very flush. Most would call this the fight-or-flight response. I sat and stewed about this tyrannical monster, how he must be laughing in his big office about my demise, and felt a sort of sullenness that I had not felt before. I had a pit in my stomach all night long. How on earth might I ever find the will to forgive and move on? I had heard of forgiveness and it had been a central part of my Christian formation for my entire life, but at that moment I was not sure if I had really discovered it for myself.
Important questions about the idea of forgiveness
The Discover Forgiveness website, an initiative sponsored by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, is a rich collection of research focusing on important questions about the idea of forgiveness. There are dozens of scientific articles indexed on this site, many of which are freely available, and the literature available to you is organized around four main themes: What is forgiveness? How does forgiveness happen? What can forgiveness do? How is forgiveness measured?
The question of what forgiveness is can be a deep one, and certainly there is debate. Many agree that it is the process of giving up negative thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and replacing them with positive ones. How forgiveness happens is incredibly intriguing and probably unfolds differently for many of us. Sometimes it happens quite naturally, and other times it requires some help. How forgiveness is measured is a key question for scientists because you cannot study something that you cannot measure. Although there are endlessly interesting and inviting conversations to be had about each of these questions, the focus of my scholarly interest for the past 20 years has been on the third question. What can forgiveness do?
Forgiveness and social relationships
In looking at the Discover Forgiveness website and selecting the research that falls under this question, one finds that there are a great many consequences of forgiveness. Possibly more obvious consequences are those that have to do with relationships. For instance, forgiveness might lead me to eventually reconcile with my boss. Forgiveness might even promote marital harmony or strengthen social relationships. Forgiveness and reconciliation can also be important parts of peace-making and community, social, and cultural healing following traumatic events or conflicts. Forgiveness may even play a role in preventing abuse in close personal relationships. And, some philosophers have argued that forgiveness changes our norms of interaction between a victim and a wrongdoer. If you have truly forgiven someone, you treat them differently.
Forgiveness and the nervous system
While the social impact of forgiveness seems rather self-evident, there are other things that forgiveness does that lie beneath the surface, literally. Beneath the surface of the skin is an intricate web of connections known as the central and peripheral nervous systems. These two systems work together to organize and maintain our normal daily functioning. One key aspect of the nervous system is to help us stay safe from potential harm. Many folks know this as the fight-or-flight system and it is meant to supply us with the necessary biological changes to comprehend and contend with threats to our well-being.
While the social impact of forgiveness seems rather self-evident, there are other things that forgiveness does that lie beneath the surface, literally.
Now, when I say threat, I mean THREAT! These things are more often than not life-threatening, or at very least, things that significantly threaten our biological safety and normal, healthy functioning. Think about things like a near-miss in your car on a high-speed freeway or meeting a stranger in a dark secluded alley holding what might look like a weapon. The fight-or-flight response serves us well in these circumstances because we might have to react quickly to avert an accident or an attack. However, our nervous systems have not been fine-tuned to our modern world and often things that seem like a serious attack might better be described as an insult or a disappointment.
Revisiting the notion of disappointment is appropriate here because that is exactly what my strongest reaction was to the denial of promotion. I was simply disappointed, but my nervous system interpreted it as an attack. This is the funny thing about our evolved brains. We have not quite developed the ability to decipher true threats from perceived ones.
Years ago when I was denied promotion at my workplace I was disappointed and that brought on feelings of anger and a desire for the taste of vengeance. And, those emotions triggered my fight-or-flight response.
What does forgiveness have to do with all of this, especially in the nervous system just beneath the skin? Studies have shown that forgiveness has a calming effect on the nervous system. This calming effect soothes the fight-or-flight response and helps to ease the untoward effects of stress. In one study the connection between stress and depression was reduced to zero, statistically speaking, for those that showed the highest levels of a forgiving disposition.
Other studies have shown that forgiveness has a beneficial effect on the heart, and large summaries of several dozen studies have shown consistent positive mental and physical health outcomes for folks who are more forgiving of both themselves and others.
Forgiveness as a means to cope
The kind of disappointment, insult, and offense that I experienced as a graduate student can be stressful and add fuel to the fight-or-flight fire, the consequences of which are not good for our mental and physical well-being. However, we should be assured that strategies to cope with these experiences have evolved right along with these stress reactions.
Although not often thought of in these terms, forgiveness can serve as an effective and healthy means of coping with life stress, daily insults, and all too common disappointments wherein we feel a strong sense of wrongdoing or injustice. Knowing what forgiveness can do often prompts those who are just discovering forgiveness to ask, how can I do this more often and more easily? This is an important question and one that will be taken up in another Discover Forgiveness blog.
Loren Toussaint, Professor of Psychology, Ph.D. at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa is a member of Templeton’s multidisciplinary, international Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council. He is president of the Forgiveness Foundation International and the associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project. Dr. Toussaint directs the Laboratory for the Investigation of Mind, Body, and Spirit at Luther College, where students of all levels study, and often co-author, peer-reviewed research papers and presentations.
Dr. Toussaint's research examines virtues, especially forgiveness, and how they are related to health and well-being. He encourages “everyday forgiveness” to build resilience and minimize stress in families, schools, healthcare, workplaces, and communities.
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