For health: forgiveness is good, bitterness is not

Recently, while in an airport waiting for a flight, I heard on CNN a summary of an article by Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent for CNN, in which it was pointed out that bitterness is bad for our health.

In her article Cohen shares some significant points made by some contributors to a new book entitled, “Embitterment: Societal, psychological, and clinical perspectives.” In short, bitterness interferes with the body’s hormonal and immune systems, leads to higher blood pressure and contributes to heart disease and other illnesses.

She cites Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, who wrote, “Bitterness is a nasty solvent that erodes every good thing“. He adds, “The data that negative mental states cause heart problems is just stupendous.  The data is just as established as smoking, and the size of the effect is the same.”

And bitterness appears to be trouble on the global stage. The World Health Organization, in a 1994 report (page 70) found, in a 1990 field survey on housing in Nigerian society, that embitterment could lead to alcoholism and domestic violence.

So clearly, even intuitively, I see that it is best to steer clear of bitterness.

So, if bitterness in thought is bad for health, wouldn’t the antidote in thought be the opposite: forgiveness? And if so, do studies bear this out?

A study¹ published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2002 took three groups of women needing forgiveness. Two groups received forgiveness counseling – one on a religious basis, the other on a secular basis. The third group received no forgiveness counseling. Both groups that received forgiveness counseling were found to have better outcomes than the control group.

And interestingly, a survey² sampling the U.S. population conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found that “Protestant and Catholic groups showed higher levels of forgiveness of others, feeling forgiven by God, and seeking forgiveness as compared to the nonreligious group” and “personal religiousness and spirituality explain some of these differences“. Additionally, an examination of the role of age found that older people were more likely to forgive and that this increased forgiveness corresponded to improved health³.

So, it appears that (1) bitterness is bad for health, (2) forgiveness is good for health, and (3) spirituality yields greater forgiveness.

But it’s much more than just statistics. At the beginning of Cohen’s article which I mentioned earlier, she shares a wonderful account of how forgiveness made a big difference in the life of Kevin Benton. It’s really worth a read. To read about Benton’s experience in Cohen’s CNN article, click here.

¹ Rye, M. S. and Pargament, K. I. (2002), Forgiveness and romantic relationships in college: Can it heal the wounded heart?, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58: 419–441. doi: 10.1002/jclp.1153
²  National Survey Results for Protestant, Catholic, and Nonreligious Experiences of Seeking Forgiveness and of Forgiveness of Self, of Others, and by God by Toussaint, Loren I., Williams, David R.; Journal of Psychology and Christianity; Copyright Christian Association for Psychological Studies, Incl., Summer 2008
³  Loren L. Toussaint, David R. Williams, Marc A. Musick, Susan A. Everson (2001); Forgiveness and Health: Age Differences in a U.S. Probability Sample; Journal of Adult Development, Vol. 8, No. 4, 2001
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