Professor Toussaint, it is refreshing to see someone address this all important matter of being able to live a better life by adding forgiveness as an individual’s attribute. What was your motivation?
My motivation is simple. When I finished my graduate school training, I decided I wanted to do something that would be meaningful to people. I did not want to do something that might be of interest to a few people in a single scientific discipline or people of only a single demographic. Instead, I wanted to study something that would be meaningful and helpful to many different types of people.
I was raised in a very Christian home and wanted to do something that was going to honour my religious and spiritual upbringing. I chose to study forgiveness because I felt like, and I still feel like, it is perhaps one of the single most important topics for human kind. What could be more important than helping people heal? We’re an imperfect human race, so we will certainly be hurt by others. My focus is on how to help people heal and move forward.
Please tell us about the benefits of forgiveness as you see it.
There are many benefits of forgiveness. I have focused on mental and physical health, happiness, quality of life, pain, and cognitive function. The benefits in these areas are considerable. For instance, did you know that withholding forgiveness increases your risk of earlier death? Likewise, it increases your risk for many different psycho-pathologies like depression and anxiety.
Forgiving people are generally happier, enjoy a better quality of life, and experience less pain. They also seem to be protected somewhat from the negative effects of harmful emotions like stress and hostility.
Even more so, as you get older, self-forgiveness appears to slow the rate of normal age-related cognitive decline. In addition to these benefits, forgiveness also has positive impacts on your relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners, and deepens your spirituality and connectedness to God or a higher power.
Becoming a Natural
What are the five steps to reaching that stage when forgiveness becomes ‘natural’?
There are lots of routes to forgiveness being a natural part of who you are, but if I had to name just a few, I’d probably say it starts with motivation, is maintained by practice, and is refined by humility and commitment.
Motivation is key because few people develop something new about themselves without being motivated to do it. You really have to want to become a more forgiving person. Often folks find this motivation in the desire to feel better, move on from the past, or for religious or moral reasons.
Practice at forgiving, like just about anything else, is what keeps the motivation alive and keeps you moving forward. You can’t think you’re going to become a more forgiving person and then never expect to have to do it.
We all do it daily, but you want to be really intentional about it. When someone is rude to you in a store, you can respond in forgiveness, a friend or room-mate might be harsh with you and you can again forgive, or when a co-worker does something that hurts you, forgiveness can be your response.
But, you have to be intentioned, ready, and then practice forgiveness regularly. Lionel Messi is one of the world’s best soccer players because he practices. It is the same with forgiveness, you have to practice the skill to improve at doing it.
Finally, you have to remain humble and know that you will need forgiveness in the future, and that you cannot expect to receive it if you don’t offer it. That’s the irony of forgiveness. It is a two-way street. If you aren’t humble enough to know you’ll need it, you probably struggle to offer it.
How do you define unforgiveness?
Unforgiveness is the complex set of emotions that you feel toward someone that has hurt you. Key among these is probably hatred. Hatred consists of your desire to see someone hurt or in pain, and that is often our response when someone hurts us.
We want our offender to experience similar hurt. This is often expressed in motives for revenge or feelings of resentment, but at its core unforgiving hearts are filled with hateful emotions.
You’re a professor of psychology. What are your views on the rampant use of psychotropic drugs and to what extent can they be done away with?
Psychotropic drugs, like all drugs, are an important part of our approach to fighting illness and disease. Of course, sometimes these drugs can be overprescribed or overused. When this happens problems can result.
I would argue that the best approaches to treatment are multi-faceted in nature. That is, mental and physical illness is treated with a combination of drugs, psychotherapy, and any systems level interventions that are necessary.
In terms of forgiveness you might be interested to find that when a common pain medication, Tylenol (acetaminophen), is taken the beneficial effects of forgiveness on the experience of social pain are enhanced.
That is, forgiveness has a more beneficial effect on social pain when the Tylenol is given. This is a prime example of multifaceted treatment possibilities and the promise they hold.
Spirituality and Health
How do you correlate spirituality with health?
The question of how you correlate spirituality and health is an interesting one. First it begins with understanding the constructs that you’re studying. Spirituality can be thought of from three broad perspectives.
In ritualistic spirituality we think of a structured focus on practicing one’s religion in a formal context such as a church or mosque. In theistic spirituality we think of a connection to a deity that is unstructured and not connected to religion. In existential spirituality we think of a non-theistic approach to understanding one’s meaning and purpose in life.
It is also important to consider how you’re conceptualising health. For instance, you might think of mental illness–things like depression and anxiety–or you might consider physical health, such as pain, functional ability, or chronic illnesses like arthritis, heart disease, or cancer.
Once you have defined both spirituality and health you need to consider research designs that are meaningful. This is an issue that is too detailed to get into here, but it is important to consider because design determines what types of conclusions you can draw.
The final step involves conducting analyses that are of a statistical nature that examine the extent to which there are trends in both spirituality and health. Statistical correlations, often controlling for potential confounding variables, commonly show that as spirituality increases so too does health improve, and in some cases you find that spirituality increases and your risk for something like cancer or heart disease might decrease.
Studying spirituality and its relationship to health is a highly scientific enterprise. One’s religious or spiritual beliefs might suggest that good health might be obtained through one’s faith, but to establish this scientifically requires good measurement, good research design, and objective interpretation.
To what extent have oncology experts and other medical professionals adopted the many means of spirituality to help patients recover?
Christian psychotherapy and other professional fields such as chaplaincy have long utilised spirituality as a tool in helping clients heal. Religiously or spiritually tailored interventions are often more effective in bringing about relief from psychological distress that is associated with many chronic illnesses.
Spiritual interventions can be used to effectively bring about a state of relaxation and healing that is beneficial for patients who are struggling with their health. Spiritual approaches to counselling can also help individuals who are struggling with anxiety or may be grieving the loss of a loved one.
Many medical centres and hospitals today have entire departments of spiritual care whose sole focus is on meeting the spiritual needs of patients and their families during times of much stress and anxiety, especially in situations where care may be palliative in nature.
Patients facing life-threatening circumstances or terminal illnesses often have significant spiritual issues that they wish to discuss or want their families to work through with them. Spiritual aspects of patients and caring for spiritual needs is something that is often desired by patients and is commonly addressed by pastors, rabbis, and other spiritual care counsellors with training and experience in working in healthcare settings.
Should We Ever Say No to Forgiveness?
When does it become important to say ‘No’?
I think what you’re asking is whether there is ever a situation or circumstance in which forgiveness is not appropriate. Some people think that some offences are simply unforgivable.
Part of me would like to agree, but my Christian faith tells me that everything is forgivable with the help of God. So as a Christian I have to at least try to forgive even when things feel entirely unforgivable. Other major world religions similarly hold forgiveness in very high esteem and see it as a virtue that should be pursued.
Now, the interesting part of this is that just because you forgive, it doesn’t mean that you have to put yourself in a vulnerable position again. It does not mean that you must make good friends with the person who hurt you. And, finally it does not mean that you must forego seeking justice.
You can forgive an offender but not want to repair the relationship and may still want to seek justice. This is because forgiveness is an intra-personal experience. That means that it happens within you. Forgiveness is letting go of negative thoughts, feelings and motivations and replacing those things with more positive things like empathy, compassion, and love. Reconciling a relationship and seeking justice are things that are done between people in social circumstances or in the legal system.
So in my way of thinking there is rarely if ever an instance in which you must say, “no I cannot forgive”. But please keep in mind that forgiving does not mean that you return to a vulnerable position or that you no longer seek justice.
Many of your articles have been popular and rightly so. To what extent do you see the youth following your recommendations?
I think one thing I’m encouraged by is the high degree of compassion, generosity, and altruism in young people today. Forgiveness is a true instance of altruism. That is forgiveness is something that you do that does not necessarily benefit you in the immediate-term. There may be no other reason to do it except that it feels like the right thing to do according to your faith or moral beliefs.
Youth of the world today have two choices. One, they can continue in the way that former generations where when harm is done to one person or country a similar or greater level of harm is returned to the offender.
Or, two, young people today can choose a much more productive path forward. One that includes forgiveness, justice, and global change. I would suggest that forgiveness offers the opportunity to put the past permanently in the past and to work collaboratively for a better future. If we have learned anything in recent years it is that we will have to work together, not against each other, to save this planet and enhance our quality of life moving forward.
Loren Toussaint is professor of psychology at Luther College and associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project. He has also been a visiting scientist at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. In this day and age of our fast moving lives he has dedicated himself to how we can improve our lives by means and virtue of forgiveness.
Part Two of our interview with Dr Loren Toussaint will be released next Friday.
Photos: From the Archive of Professor Toussaint; Shutterstock
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