The Science of Forgiveness

“To err is human, to forgive, divine.” Alexander Pope




As we age, the importance of making peace with others becomes more apparent, and the benefit is that we gain a sense of peace with ourselves. Authors of a recent article in the Journals of Gerontology examined the relationship between one’s ability to let go and forgive and depression among elder individuals. What they found may not be surprising, but what might surprise you is a simple mechanism that enables this.

In their article titled Forgiveness, ego-Integrity, and depressive symptoms in community-dwelling and residential elderly adults in the Journals of Gerontology, Dezutter, Toussaint and Leijssen (2016), describe how important it is for elderly adults to make peace with their past—to find some levels of acceptance.1

Their research suggests that one’s ability forgive has an impact on depression. Forgiving others resolves difficult emotions and strengthens social bonds. It enhances social identity and helps provide a sense of peace, safety and comfort. The importance of this cannot be overstated. A growing body of research demonstrates that depression continues to be a serious concern among both community and residential adults, and depression is linked with an alarming list of negative outcomes, including suicide, quality of life, higher risks of functional impairment and increased mortality.1



Why focus on forgiveness?

hands-2According to the authors, forgiveness is related to psychosocial functioning and mental health. Most researchers agree that forgiveness of others is complex and can involve a number of processes that includes letting go of resentment and retribution and offering undeserved compassion.

Forgiveness and Peer Support

This process can also include forgiveness of self. Mark Twain said “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” One of the best places where these processes happen is within peer support groups. Although clearly more research is needed, peer support groups offer a simple mechanism and an affordable approach to a complex problem.

We internalize things and when we are in a place of trust—what comes to the surface is emotions that have become buried. Although it can be difficult to revive these emotions, this is what happens on a regular basis within the safety of a peer support group.

Peer support as an intervention is particularly promising as a potential means of reducing depression. A meta-analysis assessing the efficacy of peer support interventions among adults for example, found peer support helped to reduce symptoms of depression and there was no statistically significant difference between professionally led group cognitive behavioural therapy and peer support2.

Peer Support Groups as a Standardized Psychosocial Care Approach

If peer support groups became a standardized psychosocial care approach within residential care there could be a significant reduction in the rates of loneliness and depression. Peers share their abilities to forgive and let go, and that gives others permission to do the same. This unburdening and acceptance is common within properly structured peer support groups. Participants learn to trust and support each other.

Post (2011) describes the benefits of this process as group members take on a new social identity: “Members use the power of their own experience and of their own wounds to lighten the burden of others, and heal themselves in the process. (p. 38).” 3


1Dezutter, J., Toussaint, L. & Leijssen, M. (2016). Forgiveness, ego-Integrity, and depressive symptoms in community-dwelling and residential elderly adults. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological and Social Sciences, 71(5), 786-797. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbu146

2Pfeiffer, P. N., Heisler, M., Piette, J. D., Rogers, M. A. M., & Marcia Valenstein. (2011). Efficacy of peer support interventions for depression: A meta-analysis. General Hospital Psychiatry, 33, 29-36. doi: 10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2010.10.002

3Post, S. G. (2011). It’s good to be good: 2011 fifth annual scientific report on health, happiness and helping others. Ohio: Case Western Reserve University.

Comments ( 4 )

  • Gary Bauer

    Thanks, Kristine. Lovely and timely article. You have really struck a divine note.

  • carmen

    very interesting….especially so since Forgiveness has come up for me a lot in the past 4 months. Thank you for an interesting article.

    • Kristine

      Thank you Carmen – forgiveness comes up a lot for me too! Thank you for sharing. Kristine

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