The Power of Forgiveness: A Key to Improved Mental Health

Early in his career as a marriage counselor, psychologist Everett Worthington noticed that many couples were angry about perceived slights and real wrongs — and he realized they could make progress only if they forgave each other.

Those insights prompted Worthington to embark on a decades-long academic career studying the science of forgiveness.


While the act of forgiving is often discussed by faith communities, Worthington has found that a secular approach to forgiveness also can be a useful strategy in improving health.

He and his colleagues recently completed a study conducted across five countries showing that when forgiveness is taught, practiced and achieved, the result is better mental and overall well-being.

“Forgiveness can change relationship dynamics and prevent a lot of very costly things that can happen in society,” said Worthington, a professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University. “There are injustices we experience every day. People don’t have to forgive — it’s a choice people may make or not make.”

Forgiveness as a public health issue

Worthington developed workbooks and included exercises and prompts that allow people to explore feelings of anger and resentment and learn to let go of them.

The latest version, which is free to download in five languages, promises that you can become a more forgiving person in about two hours, and includes thought exercises to help explore specific transgressions and work through feelings of anger and resentment. It’s based on the most effective exercises used in prior research, and has been condensed to save time and make the program more accessible.

The randomized study, which was conducted among 4,598 participants in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ukraine, Colombia and South Africa, asked half the participants to complete the workbook exercises over a two-week period. (The other half were allowed to try the workbook later.)

After two weeks, the study showed that the workbook had promoted forgiveness and shown a statistically meaningful reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms among users compared with the control group. The research is being presented this weekend at Harvard University at an interdisciplinary conference on forgiveness. T

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto: