I currently work as the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, which I cofounded and where I teach people ways to manage their hurt feelings and to live lives of greater satisfaction. As a health psychologist, I began this project as an outgrowth of my work in preventive cardiology, which focused on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease among elders and on helping them maintain their health and well-being.
About eight years ago, I began to study the effect that forgiveness has on physical and emotional well-being. Toward that end I developed a simple process of teaching people to let go of the grudges and grievances they carry around. As I started to teach forgiveness, I discovered that an unexpectedly large number of people responded to this work with fascination, confusion, enthusiasm and mistrust-and almost no one knew for certain exactly what forgiveness was and why it might be useful to study.
My research has shown that learning to forgive helps people hurt less, experience less anger, feel less stress and suffer less depression. The research also revealed that as people learn to forgive they become more hopeful, optimistic and compassionate because they become more forgiving in general, not only toward one person who they feel did them wrong. Furthermore, the project demonstrated that forgiveness has physical health benefits: People who learn to forgive report significantly fewer symptoms of stress, such as backache, muscle tension, dizziness, headaches and upset stomachs. In addition, people report improvements in appetite, sleep patterns, energy and general well-being. One study we conducted showed that angry people with high blood pressure showed a decrease in both anger and blood pressure when they were taught to forgive.
If forgiveness is so good for people, why do so few choose to forgive those who hurt them? First and foremost, no one has taught us how to forgive. Religious traditions usually tell people to forgive but do not offer practical steps for doing so. American culture prizes the expression of anger and resentment more than the peace of forgiveness. Additionally, most people are confused about what forgiveness is and is not. Because of this confusion, too many do not take the opportunity to heal themselves-sometimes from great emotional pain and the physical consequences that result.
Forgiving a wound such as an adulterous affair or a grown child's rejection does not translate into condoning the offense. I am reminded often that we can only forgive that which we know to be wrong. …