Forgiveness makes late-life sweeter

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"Forgiveness," does the word still exist in the vocabulary of modern-day individuals? Does this moral virtue guide people's intentions, beliefs, and behaviors? Or has forgiveness died a silent death between the brick walls of centuries-old convents and monasteries? The word is steeped in religious traditions and is indeed central in several world religions and spiritual traditions. But is forgiveness relevant today, how so, and for whom?

Forgiveness is probably most commonly associated with religiousness and spirituality and has also been a common theme in therapeutic settings for some time, but recently forgiveness has become a hot topic in psychological and social science. Like any scientific line of investigation it all starts with understanding what forgiveness is. Although researchers are still discussing the formal definition of forgiveness, most now agree that it consists of letting go one's right to retribution and offering mercy to the offender. Having come to some consensus on the understanding of forgiveness, the next critical question for scientists is, what is it good for? Based on clinical insights and therapeutic experiences, psychologists had the idea that forgiveness might be an important process in mental and physical health and functioning of individuals. This line of reasoning coincides with the ideas of pastoral counselors and theologians who have long espoused with favor the healing balm of forgiveness. But to test this claim scientifically, psychological and social scientists turned to the scientific method employing epidemiological surveys, laboratory experiments, and intervention studies.

What we've learned about the benefits of forgiveness through many scientific studies has surprised even the most ardent investigators of the forgiveness-health connection. In brief, dozens of studies utilizing different methodologies and different populations have shown that forgiveness is generally connected with better mental and physical health. Moreover, some forms of forgiveness can even promote longer life. Interestingly, some of the earliest research connecting forgiveness with mental and physical health showed, in a nationally representative sample of United States adults, that older individuals appeared to reap the benefits of forgiveness more completely than younger folks. This begs the question of why. Why would forgiveness offer more benefits to older as compared to younger individuals? Several different theories have been offered to address this question, but what we would like to consider is if forgiveness offers a smoother path forward as individuals attempt to gain clarity on life and consider their contributions, shortcomings, and fulfillment in life. Confronted with the inevitable finality of human life and death, an elderly individual often reviews life. Looking back on life lived can be quite a challenge. Unresolved fights with one's children, tensions with one's friends, and unspoken feelings of regret or jealousy can elicit feelings of despair which can easily turn into depression. Conversely, having lived life and gained wisdom from one's experience can bring about a sense of integrity. This is a key psychosocial challenge of late life according to Erik Erikson and is known as the integrity versus despair stage. Our research was an attempt to integrate forgiveness with the seminal developmental theorizing of Erik Erikson.

Courtesy of authors.

Courtesy of authors.

The outcome of the integrity-despair psychosocial stage of development has implications for the mental health of older persons and it is here that we hypothesized that forgiveness could facilitate integrity and inhibit the development of despair, thereby, positively influencing the mental health of older individuals (see figure above). With the collaboration of Flemish nursing homes, elderly care centers, organizations for elderly individuals, and the assistance and unending support of nine graduate students on our research team, we tried to address this hypothesis. A total of 320 elderly individuals were questioned on their tendency to forgive, their feelings of ego-integrity and despair and, the presence of depressive symptoms (a global proxy measure of mental health). It is important to understand how integrity-despair are related to depressive symptoms and how forgiveness might be involved because depressive symptoms and depression have reached alarming levels in the oldest old, both in the community and residential settings. For instance, depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans aged 65 years or older and it is closely related with impairment, morbidity and mortality in this age group.

With respect to our hypothesis, our findings were very clear. As predicted, forgiveness was related to better resolution of the integrity-despair stage of psychosocial development. That is, more forgiving individuals showed a greater sense of integrity and a lesser degree of despair than less forgiving individuals. More importantly the benefits of forgiveness for integrity-despair resolution translated into improved mental health as indicated by lower levels of depression. What this might mean is that forgiveness could promote a more productive resolution of the late life psychosocial issues faced by older individuals and movement of individuals more successfully through this stage may result in improved mental health. With alarmingly high levels of mental health problems in the elderly population and rapid increases in this segment of the population, innovative and effective approaches to promoting health and reducing health care costs and burden should be carefully considered and implemented to enhance population health and well-being in late life.

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Loren Toussaint

Loren Toussaint

Loren Toussaint, Luther professor of psychology and associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project, is conducting research to broadly understand religious and spiritual factors, especially forgiveness, and how they are related to mental and physical health and wellbeing. Toussaint's research has been featured in a number of print, online and radio outlets, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register, Greater Good, Miller-McCune, Ladies Home Journal, Scotland on Sunday, Men's Health, Psychology Today and the Associated Press. Toussaint was interviewed on Georgia Public Broadcasting on the science behind forgiveness.

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