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In the study, which was presented last week at an interdisciplinary conference on forgiveness at Harvard and is currently under review for publication, researchers randomly assigned 4,598 participants from five countries into groups. One set received a forgiveness workbook with exercises they completed on their own. (An example: Write the story of a specific hurt you want to forgive. Then write it again as more of an observer, without emphasizing how bad the wrongdoer was or how you felt victimized. Look for at least three differences between the two versions.) Those in the control group waited for two weeks before receiving the workbook.
When the two weeks were up, researchers found that those participants who’d completed the workbook felt more forgiving than those in the control group — and had reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. These findings jibe with other studies on forgiveness, which have found it can be a boon to mental health, helping to do things like lower stress and improve sleep.
“What forgiveness does is sort of free the victim from the offender,” said Tyler VanderWeele, the director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard and one of the co-authors of the study. “I would never say ‘Once you’ve forgiven, everything’s fine.’” But it is a better alternative to rumination or suppression, he said. And that is likely why it can improve overall mental well-being.