[This article appeared as a recent Happify Daily blog. Happify Daily is an extraordinary resource on the science of happiness. In retrieving this article, I could surf through The Power of Mindfulness: Reshape Your Brain through Calm and Compassion; or The Seven Secrets of Unwavering Self-Confidence; or The Science of Giving: Why One Act of Kindness is usually followed by another. Easy to subscribe; always informative and inspiring.]
Happy people are more forgiving than unhappy people, according to a recent study in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. But, does inner positivity help a person move on, or does letting go increase positivity? The answer may be “both”: Whether you start out happy or not, forgiving someone for a past transgression can make you feel better.
The mechanism is fairly simple. “Forgiveness is a process over time that includes letting go of negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and replacing those with positive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors toward the offender,” says Ann Christine Recine, DNP, a nurse practitioner who studies forgiveness and works with patients on the practice.
However, moving forward doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook or minimizing a wrong. “Forgiveness is not releasing the offender for legal obligations,” says Recine. “It’s not condoning or excusing, which implies there’s a justification. It’s not forgetting or refusing to remember the event. It’s not reconciling, which implies there’s restored trust and contact. And it’s not pretending that everything is fine.”
In fact, you may never say the words “I forgive you” out loud. Instead, forgiveness is an internal process, something you do to help come to terms with a past experience and end your suffering, pain, anger, and resentment around the event. You simply decide to stop focusing on blame and instead move forward in a more positive direction.
It’s a gift you give to yourself.
Of course, forgiving someone who’s really hurt you is harder than it sounds. Knowing the health benefits can help. When you forgive, those nagging, negative thoughts will go away, and research shows you’ll experience less fear, anger, and depression, not to mention improved sleep, less physical pain, better cardiac function, and increased life satisfaction.
When the thoughts arise-and they will, especially when you first start this process-practice relaxation, suggests Recine. “Find ways to calm yourself,” she says. “When you think about this person or event, you get a lot of adrenaline. Practicing gratitude, mindfulness meditation, being in the moment, guided imagery, or a meditative movement like qi gong can help. The more time you’re in a relaxed, calm place, the less upset you’re going to be.”
To temper these thoughts so they eventually happen less, conjure up an image of the most loving and accepting person you know and channel them when negative feelings creep in.
Or, reflect back on your own wrongs. “Sometimes we help people remember times when they hurt someone else,” says Recine. “It may not have been in the same way, but just remembering that you hurt someone else, and that you were likely forgiven for it, can give you a more humble attitude.”
Most importantly, keep drawing upon the times you’ve been able to forgive. “Each person has their own store of positive forgiveness memories of when they were able to do that tough thing, to forgive someone who hurt them,” says Recine. “Remembering how you did this can give you confidence to do it again.”
Jessica Cassity writes about health, fitness, and happiness for publications including Self, Shape, Health, Women’s Health, and Family Circle magazines. Her first book, Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You was published in 2011.