Vitality

Mental Health Benefits Of Forgiveness: Forgiving Others Can Protect You From Depression

forgive
Forgiving others, especially for women, is associated with decreased depression. CC BY 2.0

Forgiving a friend or partner for little flaws and pet peeves is one thing, but it’s often harder to let go of bigger wrongdoings — like someone breaking your trust. But allowing yourself to forgive others might help protect you from depression, according to a new study out of the University of Missouri.

The study examined aging adults in particular and wanted to see how forgiveness affected their mental health and depression — particularly if the participants felt unforgiven by others (which tends to be a bummer). They used data from the Religion, Aging, and Health Survey, which includes information about 1,000 adults who are older than 67. The researchers found that older women in particular benefited from forgiving others; they were less likely to be depressed if they indulged in forgiveness, whether or not they felt unforgiven by others.

However, the same results didn’t apply to men. In fact, men still reported high levels of depression if they felt unforgiven by others — even if they tried to forgive others. While it’s only one small study, it points to the notion that men and women cope differently with depression, and perhaps women are more likely to feel relief or happiness when they nourish social ties — a part of which involves forgiveness and empathy.

“It doesn’t feel good when we perceive that others haven’t forgiven us for something,” Christine Proulx, an author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri, said in the press release. “When we think about forgiveness and characteristics of people who are forgiving — altruistic, compassionate, empathetic — these people forgive others and seem to compensate for the fact that others aren’t forgiving them.”

The researchers point out that as people get older, they tend to reflect more about their lives and characteristics — and they're more likely to forgive others. It turns out that, for women at least, this reflection and forgiveness benefits mental health.

“It sounds like moral superiority,” Proulx continued, “but it’s not about being a better person. It’s ‘I know that this hurts because it’s hurting me,’ and those people are more likely to forgive others, which appears to help decrease levels of depression, particularly for women.”

Past research has shown there are both mental and physical health benefits when it comes to forgiving others. One recent study found that holding a grudge actually impaired certain physical fitness aspects in participants (students were asked to jump after recalling grudges; those who held onto negative feelings about someone didn’t jump as high as people who had forgiven). In addition, a 2014 study found that people who forgave others for their transgressions were more likely to forget those negative things, giving them a chance to let go and focus on positives.

Perhaps most interestingly, while your therapist might tell you to forgive yourself when times get tough, it’s not always just self-forgiveness that decreases depression. Rather, forgiving others seems to have the most positive impact.

“Self-forgiveness didn’t act as the protector against depression,” Proulx said in the press release. “It’s really about whether individuals can forgive other people and their willingness to forgive others.”

Source: Ermer A, Proulx C. Unforgiveness, depression, and health in later life: the protective factor of forgivingness. Aging & Mental Health. 2015.

Loading...