There's a reason saints have that beatific glow: Being able to empathize and forgive may heal the heart and mind.
Forgive and Forget. Most of us find the forgetting easier, but maybe we should work on the forgiving part. "Holding on to hurts and nursing grudges wears you down physically and emotionally," says Stanford University psychologist Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Good. "Forgiving someone can be a powerful antidote."
In a recent study, Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, an assistant professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and colleagues asked 71 volunteers to remember a past hurt. Tests recorded steep spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension - the same responses that occur when people are angry. (Research has linked anger to heart disease.) When the researchers asked volunteers to image empathizing and even forgiving the people who had wronged them, they remained calm by comparison.
What's more, forgiveness can be learned, insists Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. "We teach people to rewrite their story in their minds, to change from victim to hero. If the hurt is from a spouse's infidelity, we might encourage them to think of themselves not only as a person who was cheated on, but as the person who tries to keep the marriage together.
Two years ago Luskin put his method to the test on five women from Northern Ireland whose sons had been murdered. After undergoing a week of forgiveness training, the women's sense of hurt, measured using psychological tests, had fallen by more than half. They were also much less likely to feel depressed and angry. "Forgiving isn't about condoning what happened," says Luskin, "It's about breaking free of the person who wronged us."
The early signs that forgiving improves overall health are promising - Last year a survey of 1423 adults by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research found that people who had forgiving someone in their past also reported being in better health than those who hadn't.
However: While 75 percent said they were sure God had forgiven them for past mistakes, only 52 percent had been able to find in their hearts to forgive others. Forgiveness, it seems is still divine.