Students come to Luther looking for meaningful research opportunities and for work experiences that will help build a resume. They find both in Professor Loren Toussaint’s lab.
Toussaint’s research offers something to the rest of us, too—a glimpse into the human psyche and into the powerful health benefits of forgiveness.
The research: Forgive to live
Toussaint’s body of research is compelling. His findings indicate that the ability to forgive is linked with better sleep, increased mental health, less pain, reduced stress, reduced anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and lower mortality rates. Yes, you read that right: people who measure high on the unconditional forgiveness scale—meaning that they’re able to forgive without an apology or other strings attached—live longer than people who don’t.
Another surprising finding? While there’s a well-established link between lifetime stress and poorer health, forgiveness can erase that link. People who’ve experienced severe lifetime stress but who also score high on measures of forgiveness don’t experience the same health-degrading effects of stress as the rest of us.
“That the way you deal with trouble impacts your well-being and your health is just mind-blowing to me,” Toussaint says. “We published something recently that connected self-forgiveness and cognitive function ten years later. I know it’s there—the science is sound, it’s really good data, and our analyses are straightforward. Yet it baffles me that the way somebody answered a couple of questions about their style of forgiveness has anything to do with how well their brain is functioning ten years later in terms of cognitive decline.”
These sorts of findings are fascinating not just to Toussaint. His research has been published in the New York Times, U.S. News, CNN, Time, Psychology Today, Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and many other places. He received the 2018 Paper of the Year Award from the American Journal of Health Promotion for his publication “Forgiveness Working: Forgiveness, Health, and Productivity in the Workplace.”
Toussaint’s body of research is wide and deep. He finds ways to tunnel into it from all angles, through a variety of partners, and with a large roster of Luther students, who pick up invaluable experience along the way.
The students: Helping undergrads open doors
“It can be challenging to find the right place for undergraduates to fit into scholarship,” Toussaint says. “You have to have a constant eye toward where they can fit in, feel some success, and develop some critical skills that can be very marketable for them regardless of what they choose. I’m always evaluating: Where is there a good learning opportunity for these students within the context of the work I’m doing?”
Asked whether he feels special pride when a student follows in his footsteps, Toussaint is unequivocal: “Only a handful will do something similar to what I do. I’m not trying to train them to do what I do—I’m trying to train them to do lots of things.”
He tells a story about two students in 2008. “One of my most successful students came to me one day and said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to be very happy with what I have to say.’ I was bracing for the worst—I’ve decided to drop out of Luther. I’m failing out this semester. She said, ‘I’ve interviewed at three places for PhD programs for counseling psychology and I don’t think I’m going to go to any of them.’ I was still bracing. She said, ‘That’s it. I figured you’d probably be pretty upset about that.’”
He continues, “I’m not sure what there is to be upset about there. She decided to go to a master’s program in human resources and international relations at the University of Minnesota. And she is phenomenal—she is a high-level person in a major international corporate conglomerate. She’s been all over the world living and doing her thing. I think if she had chosen psychology it would have been a real benefit to our discipline—she certainly would have helped people—but having chosen her own path, I think she’s much more fulfilled.
“I have another student from that year who came to me and said, ‘I want to do exactly what you do.’ That’s the one time in 20 years of doing this that that’s happened. So if that were my only source of gratification, it would be a really rough living. Rewards and reinforcements are few and far between, but once in 20 years is too few and too far between!”
Instead, Toussaint finds gratification in teaching students transferable skills that will give them a leg up regardless of their future profession. Last semester, the Laboratory for the Investigation of Mind, Body, and Spirit—the epicenter of his many research projects—employed students across majors with diverse career plans. “Whether one of these students ends up going into psychology as a counselor and never uses statistics again in their lifetime, or if they end up being a banker and never do psychology again, or if they end up being a coder and working for Google or working in sports psychology and coaching teams how to perform better, I try to teach them a little bit of science and provide them some really universal skills,” Toussaint says.
The student workers in the lab gather and evaluate vast quantities of data. They manage databases. They think critically. They analyze results. They collaborate with professionals around the world and with each other.
Skill development is where Toussaint locates the true value of his lab for student researchers. He describes how Marcus Enomoto ’19 troubleshot problematic coding in Qualtrics, and how Anila Bano ’20 managed to extract data from a highly proprietary file format that wouldn’t cooperate with other software. “Anila has figured out how to do really sophisticated qualitative analyses that a lot of grad students would struggle with,” he says. “The analyses happened to be about forgiveness. But the win for her is that somebody in the future will recognize that she’s got some familiarity with NVivo, and this qualitative software is what they use all the time. That could be just enough to get their interest in her.”
Toussaint’s student employees get familiar with the nuts and bolts of data and software, but they also learn invaluable soft skills. Noor Bibi ’21 explains what one alumna visitor told them: “If you’re a problem-solver out in the world, that’s what’s needed. I feel like that’s the main skill we learn here. If you have that main skill, it plays a big role in building your base toward opportunities.”
In addition to marketable skills, Toussaint’s students gain exposure to different career paths. Grant Sparstad ’19 says, “I’m a biology and psychology double major, and we don’t do very much with qualitative data, so this has been a great opportunity to gain experience with it.” It’s also opened doors to his future. Through working with data in the lab, he realized what he wants to do in life. “I’ve really gotten to like data collection and data analysis,” he says. “In school psychology, that’s one of the big things—data-based decision making. So the idea that I’ll pursue a career where I’ll spend all day looking at data and collecting it from students is really exciting.”
Chi Pham ’19 says, “One of the benefits of joining this lab is that Professor Toussaint gets alumni to come back and talk to us about what they’re doing after graduate school and how it relates to what they learned in the lab.” Pham notes that doctoral student Christina Scharmer ’14 at the State University of New York at Albany inspired her to consider research in counseling and clinical psychology.
While Luther students are learning hard and soft skills in Toussaint’s lab, what about the less quantifiable impacts of working in the field of forgiveness? Enomoto says, “It’s helped me learn better who I am. Forgiveness hasn’t been at the forefront of my priorities, but something that I have definitely learned through the research we’ve done here is that it’s a value I hold highly in myself and I want to pursue a career that aligns with this value. I know that the skills I’ve learned in this lab will help me formulate better skills for when I transition out of college.”
Bano reflects, “Since I was so immersed in forgiveness, seeing this work again and again and again, it was almost like it was imprinted on my personality. So when I would be in situations where I would have to forgive someone or someone had to forgive me, it was a reminder that it’s a good thing to do. The research I was doing this year was about what motivates and enables people to forgive. Learning about that helped me to really think about my motivations—what enables me and how can I improve on those enablers to extend my capacity to forgive.”
The alumni: Prepared to succeed
The alumni from Toussaint’s lab tend to be high-performing. They graduate with a confidence, a work history, and a skill set that support their learning and career goals.
Kayley Herman ’15, for example, very neatly transferred her lab experience to the work she does at Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health as data manager for Healing Pathways, a longitudinal community-based participatory panel study with Indigenous families. She collaborates with tribal community partners, interviewers, and study investigators to oversee quantitative and qualitative data management, maintenance, and monitoring. “During my time in the lab, I was able to gain experience on everything from data entry to analyses to manuscript production,” she says. “I use all of those skills that I first developed in the lab in my job now. Having those experiences allowed me to develop a strong foundation to build on when I started my career.”
Another lab alumna, Mary Whipple ’09, just completed her PhD in nursing and gerontology at the University of Minnesota. She embarks this fall on a postdoctoral fellowship in the Division of Geriatrics at the University of Colorado’s medical school in Denver. Her work with Toussaint, she says, “helped me discover my passion for research. I learned a great deal from him in the care that it takes to enter and analyze study data, as well as the process of data collection. I also had the opportunity to give my first oral and poster abstract presentations under his guidance, and these skills in public speaking, breaking down research findings, and writing research findings clearly are ones that are critical in my day-to-day work as a researcher.” She and Toussaint have collaborated on several projects in the decade since she graduated, and they recently submitted a coauthored manuscript for peer review.
Lab alumna Emily Green ’18 works at the Twin Cities–based HealthPartners Neuroscience Center, where she coordinates and conducts clinical research trials focusing on diseases of the central nervous system. Her experience in Toussaint’s lab, she says, allowed her to develop her attention to detail and critical-thinking skills. “At each meeting, he presented the team with data and other project ideas and asked us to interpret and discuss the limitations before he followed with his explanation,” she says. “He gave each of us the opportunity to be lead investigators.”
For Green, that opportunity was profound: “I remember walking into his office one day saying, ‘Dr. Toussaint, I want to study the relationship between cognitive decline and forgiveness.’ His immediate response was ‘Okay, let’s get started!’ Within the next year, we presented our data in Seattle and collaborated with two individuals from UCLA and UC–Davis to be published. Wherever our passions were within the concept of forgiveness, he gave us each the freedom to conduct the research while always taking time to guide us along the way.”
Kelly Kennedy ’17, who worked in the lab from her first year at Luther to her last, is a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of St. Thomas. “Being able to represent our lab at regional, national, and international conferences was my proudest achievement at Luther,” she says, citing in particular the time she traveled with Green to Seattle to present at the International Association of Neuropsychology conference. “We presented our project on cognitive decline to a room full of neuropsychologists—a very unique experience for a couple of students from a school in Iowa.”
She continues, “Traveling and presenting helped me build confidence and social skills—skills that I use daily. Being able to communicate and build relationships with colleagues around the world is invaluable. Throughout my projects [in Toussaint’s lab], I worked with doctors at Mayo Clinic, nurses at the University of Minnesota, disaster-relief organizers, world-renowned authors and speakers, and some of the best professors Luther has to offer.”
Graduates who go on to work in psychology and adjacent fields aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of Toussaint’s lab. Amy Christenson ’08, a human resources director and executive coach, says she learned how to analyze data, spot trends, find insights, and communicate findings to a diverse audience. She also felt impacted by the more abstract elements of the research. “Loren introduced me to positive psychology and my first scientific look at what is really the mind/body connection,” she says. “I was fascinated and have carried this interest forward through my career. It underlies a lot of the work I do around employee engagement and well-being.”
The future: What’s next in forgiveness research?
Toussaint says that there’s lots in the hopper. His students are looking at stress, the common cold, and forgiveness; trauma symptoms, meaning in life, and forgiveness in citizens of Puerto Rico; empathy, forgiveness, and humility as correlates of intercultural competence; and how forgiving versus vengeful individuals are perceived by others.
Toussaint is also interested in forgiveness in medical environments, for example in chronic pain or cancer situations, when people may feel like their body has wronged them. And he wants to look, too, at community forgiveness: “There’s been a lot of research in interpersonal forgiveness—that’s basic hardcore psychology right there—but what about things like a country divided and trying to build into the fabric of a community, country, or culture a really strong emphasis and promotion of forgiveness?”
He will, of course, keep lots of irons in the fire. “I’m absolutely fascinated by these things,” he says. “I just can’t wait to tell someone about them. That’s the best thing about teaching. The worst part is when I find something in late May. I think, Oh, this would be awesome! But it would be for week three of the course I just finished . . . which I won’t teach again until next year at this time. Aw, man, that’s a long time to wait! But it’s kind of like a mini Christmas present then, because next year as I’m getting ready, I think, Oh, right, I got this thing—this will be awesome!”
And he’ll greet this year’s crop of student researchers with the same openness and generosity of spirit as always. As he says, “I look forward every year to seeing who’s going to come through the door.”