Forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult path to positive feelings. It is also one of the most effective in riding oneself of negative feelings. There seems to be a reflexive aspect to responding to harm, hurt, and injustice with a desire to distance ourselves or to retaliate. However, the catharsis model of vengeance has been shown to be inaccurate; in fact vengeance has been shown to further foster negative feelings rather than alleviate them. Similarly, holding a grudge generally does not actually hurt the person who transgressed against us, but forgiving can free you. Resentment sustains the pain, whereas forgiveness diminishes it.
Forgiveness is generally defined as decreasing or riding oneself of the desire to harm or distance oneself from another. Sometimes people resist the “forgive and forget” model, and rightly so. As Sonja Lyubomirsky points out, forgiving actually involves sometimes intense reflection upon the injustice in order to forgive. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Nor is it pardoning, excusing, or denial of real harm. It is rather simply the decrease of negative feelings toward another. Robert Enright has defined forgiveness as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her.” Wishing the best toward someone who has wronged us can be a tall order, but it does not cost us anything and is likely to benefit us through generating more positive feelings.
A few years ago I was betrayed by a very close friend in a public forum. He requested my counsel and when dissatisfied with my advice lied about it and misrepresented me in a public forum. This in turn led to my character being questioned within the local gay male leather community and within the organization of which I had just been elected president. It became a very painful and difficult time for me. Though we have not re-established our friendship, in time, I came to neither wish him harm nor maintain distance from him, and he has since apologized. What I needed in order to forgive him and let go of my hurt was not his apology—I had already forgiven him by the time that came—but to understand his actions. I needed to empathize with his experience and his mental state when the transgression occurred in order to forgive him.
Forgiveness involves understanding the reasons (which are different from excuses) for the behavior. This in turn can diminish the sense of injustice and personal attack that one feels. Through understanding the situation from the offender’s perspective one can de-personalize it; one can see in what way the behaviors made sense to the transgressor at the time. Ask yourself what the person may have been trying to achieve by his or her actions. Ask yourself how your actions may have unintentionally contributed to his or her circumstances or acted as a barrier to them. Ask yourself what life circumstances may have led to the specific context in which the offending behavior occurred. With my friend, I did not need to know the specific details of his circumstances, only that he felt out of control in his life and that my counsel facilitated that feeling rather than help to resolve it. In reality, one’s understanding of the transgressor’s circumstances does not even need to be accurate; simply having a plausible story that one can tell oneself facilitates forgiveness, and engenders compassion.
Occasionally I will have a client who experiences resentment toward someone in a way in which they do not recognize the resentment. Typically they can recognize the hurt and even that the particular person is the source of the hurt, but do not acknowledge the action which led to the hurt as a transgression. Many others, of course, are fully aware of the sense of injustice done to them. If you are experiencing negative feelings toward someone, it may be worth exploring in what way you might feel that person has done you wrong. Even if you are aware that you feel someone has done you wrong, there is a value in stating it explicitly. In doing so, it may be important to remember that acknowledgment of wrongdoing does not mean that you have to sever the bond with that person, but simply that it is the first step in forgiveness.
Ideally, an act of forgiveness would include (1) an explicit statement about how you were harmed, including what was done and how it affected you and (2) a statement of forgiveness including your understanding of the cause of the behavior. A statement of forgiveness either explicitly thought or spoken aloud to yourself or to another are the easiest forms. A letter (or email) of forgiveness to the transgressor, even if unsent, can be even more powerful. Of course, the face-to-face declaration can be the most beneficial. It is important to consider what affect or repercussions a delivered forgiveness may have before it is pursued—do not do so in a way that re-opens old wounds in a relationship or makes yourself vulnerable to further hurt.
Forgiveness is not something one does for another. As stated before, whether you engage in forgiveness or not is likely to have little effect on the life of the person against whom you hold a grudge. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself in order to rid yourself of negative feelings that decrease the quality of your life. Act to reduce the resentment in your life and in return decrease the anger and anxiety you feel in exchange for becoming healthier, more agreeable, and more serene.
Sometimes when we try to think of things that we are grateful for, we instead think of what we don’t possess. When I was in fourth grade my class had to write an essay on what we were grateful for. As I sat there I thought about how I was the second smartest kid in the class when it came to math. I was the third fastest runner in the class. I was not the best looking, funniest, or most popular. I was not a good speller. A lot of my clothes were hand-me-downs or came from discount stores. I did not have my own room. My family did not get to go on as neat of vacations as some of my classmates. There was nothing that I was grateful for. After awhile I found myself crying as I began to feel sorry for myself, and not particularly special.
My teacher, Mr. Tecler, noticed this and invited out into the hallway where he sat with me and talked with me. He told me about his son who had a birth defect and described for me how difficult it was for him to use his hands to even eat. He did not try to convince me of what made me special or what was special in my life. Instead he taught me not to take simple things for granted. He taught me the beginnings of gratitude. To this day I regularly express gratitude for my working limbs and organs. I am also grateful to Mr. Tecler for this lesson.
My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gratitude as: the state of being grateful; thankfulness. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes gratitude as wonder, appreciation, savoring, fathoming abundance, being thankful to God or another, and not taking for granted. We all have been told to be grateful throughout our lives (“always say thank you”). But why is gratitude important or valuable, beyond being polite? Gratitude is actually good for your health.
Research has shown that people who foster a sense of gratitude are happier, more energetic, and more hopeful. They experience more positive emotions. It is actually difficult to feel bad when you are being grateful. People who are grateful also experience fewer health symptoms. Furthermore, it is not just that people who are grateful also experience all of these things, but rather when people have deliberately engaged in gratitude these positive aspects followed; there is support for a causal relationship between gratitude and positive mental and physical health.
As Lyubomirsky points out, gratitude helps us extract the greatest joy and satisfaction from our experiences. It also promotes self-worth and self-esteem as we recognize how much people have done for us and how much we have accomplished. It likewise reduces our need to compare ourselves to others as we appreciate the things in our own life. Research has also shown that gratitude promotes better coping with trauma and stress. It increases the occurrence of moral and altruistic behavior. Valuing our friendships more increases the strength and benefit of those friendships.
Something as simple as fostering a sense of gratitude can have a plethora of positive effects. How often do you count your blessings? Writing down 5 things you are grateful for once a week has been shown to be beneficial. Writing a letter or note of gratitude to someone who has provided you something in your life can have lasting favorable affects. I wrote a thank you note to my parents for being my parents and all that that experience gave me a number of years ago and it still gives both me and them positive feelings .I will be writing thank you cards this week, thanking people for being in my life. I will share with them how simply having them in my life has enhanced it, and how I appreciate that. It seems like a good time to begin fostering feelings of gratitude.
It turns out that research suggests that happiness is not simply a temporary emotional state, but can also be an enduring trait, a baseline of happiness day to day. Martin Seligman, perhaps the leading figure in positive psychology, has proposed a simple formula for this general happiness specific to each individual:
H = S + C + V
Research suggests that trait happiness is about 50% inherited. Within positive psychology, this is referred to as one’s set range (S in the formula). The set range can also be affected by enduring negative events (e.g., death of a loved one, poverty), but not so much by the good things that happen in our life. Things that generate the momentary happiness do not seem to affect one’s overall trait happiness. The concept of the “hedonistic treadmill” claims that we adapt to the positive changes in our life (e.g., wealth accumulation and accomplishments) so that they do not have an enduring effect on our overall happiness. These positive changes are very strong with regard to momentary happiness, but do much less to affect one’s base line of happiness.
Another factor affecting trait happiness is our circumstances (C in the formula). Wealth, it turns out, has a minimal effect on happiness. Once one achieves a comfortable living, then additional wealth does little, in itself, to increase base rate happiness. Living in a culture which promotes a sense of freedom positively affects one’s base happiness. Poor health notably affects base happiness only when it becomes extensive or pervasive. Having a chronic illness does not seem to affect long-term happiness, even within a year of diagnosis. Having a meaningful romantic relationship is associated with a higher happiness base rate, but which causes which is not clear. Similarly, having a strong social network is also associated with greater base happiness, but the cause and effect relationship has not been teased out yet. General wisdom in psychology does suggest that having a strong social network and satisfying romantic relationship will lead to greater base happiness. Religions with a strong sense of hope also contribute to greater happiness. Most of our other circumstances (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, geographic location) do not appear to have much effect on general happiness. Most of our circumstances are things that we are not able to have much of an effect on. Fortunately, circumstances appear to only contribute to about 10% of happiness.
The remaining 40% of base rate happiness appears to be determined by how we think about the past, present, and future. These are factors that are fully under our control; they are voluntary (V in the formula). If you believe that your future is bound by your past, you are likely to have less general happiness. While past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, past events are not a good predictor of future events—except in that patterns of behavior carried from the past into the future create opportunities and events.
If you dwell on your past you are almost assuredly going to experience less overall happiness. But if you accentuate gratitude then you increase the overall positive feelings that you have. Likewise, if you emphasize forgiveness, then you reduce the negative feelings that you experience. This does not mean that one should prohibit himself or herself from having memories, but by changing the way you think about the past and what you choose to reflect on, you can dramatically change the balance of negative and positive feelings you experience.
Living in the present involves being mindful, experiencing the pleasures of life, and engaging in the gratifications of life. Mindfulness refers to being more aware of what one is experiencing right now. This includes noticing the physical world around oneself and the physical world within oneself. It can include considering the realities of the people around us and often involves our adjusting our perspective. This can help us enjoy the pleasures of life, which are intense sensory and emotional experiences in life. Gratification is the process of activity engaging in the activities in life that we enjoy. Emphasizing the pleasures and gratifications of life involves deliberately experiencing the world more fully in enjoyable ways. This specifically excludes focusing on the past and agonizing about the future.
Similar to dwelling in the past, worrying about the future decreases overall happiness. Just as memories are not discouraged, dreaming about the future, even fantasizing, can be positive. Having a sense of hope and a sense of being able to bring into being positive events in the future increases one’s happiness base rates. In other words, a greater sense of optimism will imcrease one’s overall general happiness.
By changing upon what you focus you can genuinely change the base level of happiness in your life. Rather than being Pollyanna-esque, this idea recognizes that not everyone is going to achieve bliss, but it also states that no one has to be in the depths of sadness. It also recognizes that changing the way one thinks about the past, present, and the future is not easy, and may not be quick. But it does use empirical research to acknowledge that everyone can significantly alter his or her overall life satisfaction through changing the way he or she thinks.
A phrase, or idea, that has always kind of bothered me is “rules are made to be broken.” I tend to be a bit of a rule follower. I generally do not feel the need to break rules just for the sake of breaking them. If the intent of the phrase is that there are always exception to a rule, that is an idea I can accept, but this is actually rather different than the way I have frequently seen the phrase commonly interpreted in contemporary society. Often, this notion is used to disregard rules, rather than to acknowledge exceptions to rules.
When I was in high school, I knowingly broke the city-wide curfew. When I lived in a state with a sodomy law, I intentionally broke that law (as frequently as I could). These were rules that I broke because I disagreed with them. I did not break these rules because they “were made to be broken.” My behavior reflected a deliberate and considered rejection of the rule.
Texas has a history of lawlessness and rebellion and individuality. A history in which many Texans are very proud. I can appreciate the pride in being a rebel, I felt that in the examples I just mentioned in my own breaking of rules. However, I have experienced more running of red light in Houston than any other place I have lived. I sometimes believe this results from a perspective of rules as “made to be broken,” grounded in Texan independence. If the logic of this idea follows, then red lights were instituted to give pedestrians and other drivers a false sense of security and safety? That seems like a pretty twisted practical joke to me.
Lawrence Kohlberg published in 1958 his theory of moral reasoning. His theory grounded the development of moral reasoning skills in increasing conceptualizations of justice. People in the highest stage, within his theory, view rules as useful and generally valid, but not essential to follow—that they could be challenged. But challenges to those rules are grounded in a sense of individually developed ethics and do not reject rules that abide with one’s own moral code. In other words, disobeying results from a critical examination of the rule. The sentiment behind “rules are made to be broken” does not fit this ethical standard. In fact, it fits a rather immature ethical paradigm.
My object with the notion is not that it is immature, but rather that it is blatantly disrespectful. It is the violation of a contract, perhaps simply an unspoken social contract, but a contract nonetheless. This becomes particularly problematic when the notion is applied to relationships, where there becomes a clear victim of the lack of respect.
Occasionally I will have a client who behaves in his (or her) relationship as if the rules of the relationship are made to be broken. I have yet to experience this mindset applied to the benefit of the partner mind you, but only to the benefit of the one breaking the rule. I have also yet to see a situation in which the application of this mindset does not undermine the relationship, and frequently lead to other being hurt. The idea has become associated with the idea of independence, which we value in this country. But it is not an expression of independence as much as it is an expression of justification of selfish behavior. It does not represent a true ethical consideration.
In Kohlberg’s theory, a person who uses mature moral reasoning to disregard a rule does so by considering the behavior of one’s partner if one’s partner had the same opportunity to break the rule (not how would one feel if his or her partner were to break the rule, though this may be worth considering as well). Would your partner be so cavalier in breaking the rule? If so, then I would ask why the two of you even have the rule. Perhaps you really did just make the rule so that you could break it? That just seems unlikely.
If you find yourself breaking rules in your relationship, ask yourself why you agreed to the rule in the first place. If you think that the rule is a reasonable rule, then you might want to ask yourself why you made the rule with this particular person. You are probably not breaking the rule “because it was made,” but rather because it does not work for you in some way. Consider modifying the circumstances that lead to the rule not being broken (which may include the rule itself), but I would encourage you to discontinue blatantly disrespecting your partner.