While many of us were taught in primary school to “forgive and forget,” engaging in real forgiveness is much easier said than done. Forgiving yourself can be even harder. But new research out this week has given you one more reason to try and swallow your pride. A pair of researchers has found that leaving behind your grudges and ignoring those held against you may also help you avoid depression, particularly if you’re a woman.
Why are health professionals so worried about depression?
Depression has been getting a lot of attention lately because researchers have started to realize just how common and disabling it can be. Almost 16 million people are likely living with depression according to the National Institutes of Health and many of them were older adults. It’s estimated that almost one in every five adults between 50 and 65 has had depression at some point in their life and about one in 10 of those over 65.
That depression has been found to damage a person’s ability to function in all aspects of the life, which has led the World Health Organization to label depression as the world’s most disabling disease. With healthcare costs spiraling out of control, many health professionals worry that depression could continue to damage the nation’s health and economy as more and more adults are disabled by the illness
How is forgiveness related to depression?
Because depression is such a common and costly illness, the researchers are constantly looking to see what life factors might help predict who becomes depressed and who doesn’t. Doing so helps them get a grasp of how to identify those at risk and can also lead to ways to treat and prevent depression more effectively.
The researchers of this study chose forgiveness because previous research had linked a person’s ability to forgive to many aspects of overall health and well-being. But they weren’t just interested in forgiveness of others. Studies had also shown that self-forgiveness could be important to health and well-being and the team wondered whether the sense of feeling forgiven might also play a role. They looked specifically at the feeling of not being forgiven, which they called “unforgiveness,” and wondered whether it might counteract some benefits of forgiveness.
How did the researchers test the link between depression and forgiveness?
The team used data on 1,500 people from a study that looked at the link between religion, health, and aging. They measured each person’s depression levels over time and looked at how health the participants said they were. They also used questions that asked about a person’s tendency to hold a grudge, forgive others, and forgive themselves. Finally, they looked at how much a person felt forgiven by other people in their lives for things they felt they’d done wrong. They then analyzed the data to look for any connections between all of these different factors.
What did the researchers find?
The data showed a strong link between being able to forgive yourself and others and lower levels of depression. They also found that the feeling of being unforgiven increased rates of depression. Interestingly, this connection seemed to be nixed in women who were good at forgiving. Those who were able to forgive more easily also had lower levels of depression, even if they felt they had wronged and hadn’t been forgiven. Unfortunately, the opposite was true for men. Men who forgave more often had higher depression rates when they felt unforgiven.
The researchers think this may have something to do with gender roles as well as personality. They say that being forgiving is typically seen as a more feminine trait, which makes doing it that much harder for men. Adding the feeling of not being forgiven onto the vulnerability of doing something feminine puts the male apologizer in a very difficult headspace that may lead to depression. Some research has also indicated that men may be reminded of past wrong doing more often when forgiving others. In that situation, men who forgive more often may also ruminate more on the harm they’ve done to others, which may then lead towards depression.
Women, on the other hand, rely much more heavily on connectedness with others say the researchers. That means that even when connectedness is damaged by not feeling forgiven, women can compensate by forgiving others, which strengthens their connectedness overall.
How does this apply to me?
This research continues to build a case for the importance of forgiving others, even when you may not feel forgiven yourself. For women in particular, working on forgiving other people and yourself seems to help stave off symptoms of depression even when you feel like other people won’t forgive the wrongs you might have done. While these recommendations may be helpful in preventing depression, you should always talk to a mental health professional if you’re worried about your own mental health or the mental health of someone you know.