December 11, 2001

How link between forgiveness and health changes with age

ANN ARBOR---Nearly 60 percent of a nationally representative sample of 1,423 Americans report that they have forgiven themselves for past mistakes and wrong-doing, and nearly three-quarters say they feel they've been forgiven by God, but only 52 percent say they have forgiven others and just 43 percent say they have actively sought forgiveness for harm they have done, according to a study conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world's largest academic survey and research organization.

The study—the first national survey to examine age differences in multiple dimensions of forgiveness, then link those differences to both mental and physical health—finds that middle-aged and older adults were more likely to forgive others than were younger adults. In those aged 45 and older, forgiving others was linked with better self-reported mental and physical health. "The benefits of forgiveness seem to increase with age," says Loren Toussaint, a psychologist who is the first author of the study report published in October in the Journal of Adult Development.

Older people were also more likely than the young to feel forgiven by God, although all ages reported experiencing high levels of this type of forgiveness, a finding that Toussaint says left him "slightly surprised. I think all of us, at one time or another, when we've made the same mistakes over and over again, have felt that we must be a disappointment in God's eyes. Yet there's a remarkably high level of confidence across the country that God forgives us, compared to a much lower level of forgiveness of oneself and others."

About 80 percent of adults aged 45 and older said they knew that God forgave them for their sins and that this knowledge gave them the strength to face their faults and be a better person, compared to 69 percent of those aged 18 to 44. In comparison, 46 percent of the young, 57 percent of the middle-aged and 62 percent of those aged 65 and older scored high on a series of questions designed to assess the extent to which they had forgiven others. Among the items in this index were questions about how often people held on to feelings of resentment and tried to get even in some way.

"We found a particularly strong relationship between forgiveness of others and mental health among middle-aged and older Americans," says David R. Williams, a sociologist and senior research scientist at ISR. People who reported higher levels of this type of forgiveness were more satisfied with their lives and less likely to report symptoms of psychological distress, including feeling nervous, restless or sad.

The researchers also found that women were more forgiving than men, with 54 percent of women scoring high in forgiveness of others compared to 49 percent of men and 48 percent of women reporting that they had actively sought another's forgiveness, compared to just 37 percent of men.

But not all types of forgiveness had positive effects, the researchers found. "High levels of 'proactive forgiveness,' which involves asking forgiveness from someone you've hurt, asking God to forgive you, or praying to God to forgive someone who has hurt you, were strongly linked with high levels of psychological distress," says Toussaint, who is currently affiliated with Idaho State University. "Furthermore, older adults with high levels of proactive forgiveness reported less satisfaction with their lives than other older adults. This is understandable, since asking forgiveness can be stressful. It involves admitting to yourself that you've done something really wrong. Also, you risk rejection from the other person."

To elucidate why certain forms of forgiveness are positively related to health, Toussaint and Williams plan to examine the extent to which forgiveness is important in dealing with the anger and trauma following September 11. "I suspect that forgiveness may prove to be a sort of psychological antidote to anger, which has already been shown to have a host of negative physical and mental health effects," says Toussaint.

Funding for the current study was provided by the Fetzer Institute as part of the John Templeton Foundation campaign for forgiveness research, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the University of Michigan Office of the Vice President for Research.

Collaborators included sociologist Marc A. Musick, now at the University of Texas at Austin, and epidemiologist Susan A. Everson, now at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information.

Percentage of U.S. adults who report
high levels of four types of forgiveness
		     Ages 18-44  Ages 45-64  Ages 65+
Forgiveness of self 	 53	     62         59
Forgiveness of others    46          57         62
Forgiveness by God	 69          80         79
Proactive Forgiveness    40          47         47    

Percentage of U.S men and women reporting
high levels of forgiveness
			Men	Women
Forgiveness of self	 56 	  57
Forgiveness of others	 49	  54
Forgiveness by God	 71	  77
Proactive Forgiveness	 37	  48

Source:  University of Michigan Institute for Social Research 2001

Contact: Diane Swanbrow
Phone: (734) 647-9069