Are you the kind of person who has a tendency to hold on to a grudge? If so, you could be increasing your risk for depression, especially if you’re a woman. A new study has highlighted the ways in which forgiveness can help or hurt our mental health.
The study, published in the journal Aging and Mental Health, explains that “feeling unforgiven by others has been linked to poor health outcomes.” Researchers set out to examine whether the feeling of being unforgiven was associated with depression, and also found themselves looking at the role that forgiveness played in the mental health of the study participants(1).
Forgiveness And Gender
The study looked at aging adults in particular – all the study participants were over the age of 67. What the researchers found was that, although forgiveness was associated with lower rates of depression and negative mental health outcomes, there was a significant gender gap; women in particular benefited from forgiving others, even if they felt unforgiven. Men, on the other hand, reported high levels of depression when they felt unforgiven even if they were practising forgiveness themselves.
Researchers hypothesize that this difference may have something to do with social expectations of women, and the role of women in families and communities.
“It’s Not About Being A Better Person”
The researchers on the study were eager to hypothesize about the meaning behind the study’s outcome. One theory, presented by study author Christine Proulx in a recent press release, has to do with the character and personality traits necessary for committing to forgiveness.
“It doesn’t feel good when we perceive that others haven’t forgiven us for something,” Proulx said. “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. It sounds like moral superiority, 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.”(2)
Researchers added that faith may also be a factor – their study participants were predominantly Christian, a religion which often emphasizes forgiveness as a virtue.
This isn’t the first time the health impact of a forgiving attitude has been explored. One recent study found that holding a grudge could actually negatively affect your physical performance(3).
What’s interesting about the recent study, however, is that it focuses not just on self-forgiveness, but rather on the forgiveness we extend to others.
“Self-forgiveness didn’t act as the protector against depression,” Proulx explained. “It’s really about whether individuals can forgive other people.”