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Apr 6, 2023

From Bucha to Johannesburg: Forgiveness Can Heal the Body, the Soul, and Society

New research finds that forgiveness can be promoted at scale and has profound positive mental and physical health benefits.

By Benjamin Reeves

As human beings evolved and developed greater mental and emotional capacities over the millennia, there was a simultaneous evolutionary drive to develop better reconciliation skills. Reconciliation helps prevent conflict, promotes social cohesion, and makes societies more resilient and capable of accomplishing cooperative goals. A key aspect of reconciliation is forgiveness. It’s no wonder that forgiveness is a core tenet across world religions. “It’s something internal. It’s emotional. It’s a decision. It’s implicit in our thinking,” says Everett Worthington, Commonwealth Professor Emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University. In fact, researchers in public health and psychology have identified a common human behavior — forgiveness — as a key tool for improving humanity’s mental health and physical wellbeing.

Now, in a groundbreaking study, researchers supported by Templeton World Charity Foundation have shown that forgiveness not only markedly improves mental health, but there are also simple, scalable interventions that can help people forgive.

“Forgiveness is, in fact, an important public health issue,” says Tyler VanderWeele, the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. In general, public health practitioners care about things that are widespread within a population and that can shape the health of a population. “The experience of being wronged is common, and so the potential need for forgiveness or an opportunity for forgiveness is common,” VanderWeele explains.

VanderWeele, Worthington, and a research team led by Man Yee Ho, Assistant Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at City University of Hong Kong, studied whether forgiveness could be developed at scale across populations, and, if so, whether it had a positive effect on mental health. According to VanderWeele, “the results of our trial did indeed suggest that its effects on mental health and wellbeing were positive, were powerful.”

Forgiveness, the researchers have found, not only has lasting positive effects on mental health, but it can be practiced and developed with interventions scalable across a population, even using something as simple as a brief workbook.

“Forgiveness… helps the forgiver’s mental health. It really reduces the amount of anxiety they may feel, of depression they may feel, and it gives them a sense of hope and also of flourishing,” says Worthington. “So, with forgiveness, there are these mental health benefits, but there are also relational benefits in which our relationship just works better.” There are even long-term physical benefits from forgiveness, thanks to its ability to lower cortisol levels in the blood. This affects every system in the body and has positive effects on everything from sexual function to cardiovascular, immune system, and gastrointestinal function.

The Forgiveness Workbook
Worthington’s work for decades has focused on developing a forgiveness model, dubbed REACH Forgiveness, to help people who wish to do so forgive more efficiently. The name is an acronym for the five primary steps of forgiveness. These basic steps include recalling the hurt, empathizing with the person, giving an altruistic gift of forgiveness, committing to forgiveness, and then holding on to that forgiveness when doubts or new provocations arise. The REACH Forgiveness model draws upon ancient traditions of forgiveness (it’s not a new idea, after all), but breaks them down into steps that anyone can carry out regardless of their circumstances, identity, or background.

While other models of forgiveness exist and have been shown to be effective, they are typically quite time consuming, often require someone to meet regularly with a therapist or counselor, entail costs, and are subject to time and access requirements. On the other hand, Worthington has compiled the REACH Forgiveness model into a workbook that can be completed by a person in just two or three hours.

This ease of use is the REACH Forgiveness model’s big advantage and why the research team led by Ho, VanderWeele, and Worthington found it interesting as a potential public health intervention. “It’s free, so people can use it any place, anywhere, anytime they want,” says Ho. “And they do not really need to find a counselor to teach them how to do the work.”

Of course, it’s one thing to create an intervention. It’s something else entirely to demonstrate that it really works.

The Study
With the support of TWCF, the REACH Forgiveness model was compiled into a do-it-yourself workbook, which people around the world can download as a PDF in a range of languages.

“We wanted to develop a way of disseminating forgiveness, so forgiveness is available to deal with hurts in anybody’s heart, home, or homeland,” Worthington says.

The workbook was distributed to people in Hong Kong, Colombia, Indonesia, South Africa, and two sites in Ukraine, all places with either recent or ongoing conflicts between different religious, ethnic, or political groups. “It’s important for us to understand how people actually respond to conflict and offenses, no matter if they occur at individual, interpersonal, or at a society level,” notes Ho. Ultimately, almost 4,600 people participated in the study, which Worthington characterized as “by far the largest randomized scientific trial of a forgiveness intervention to date.”

Individuals who completed the workbooks were compared to those who were on a waiting list and had not yet completed the workbook. The researchers measured their relative levels of depression, anxiety, and measures of flourishing, as well as secondary measures such as forbearance (a person’s willingness to put up with things that are less than ideal for the good of a relationship or for social harmony). “We got strong results in forgiveness, but also showed that substantial depression and anxiety were eased and that measures of flourishing were much better,” Worthington says.

Forgiveness In Practice
There was strong anecdotal evidence that the intervention worked as well. Ho recounts some participants thanking her and saying, “We need this type of intervention.” Others said that it had helped them to build trust in their relationships. Not only did individuals benefit from forgiving, but also Ho observed that the process of going through the workbook helped “raise their awareness that forgiveness is actually a viable alternative to using violence or other destructive measures.”

There’s no panacea for conflicts, but the capacity to forgive can be practiced and developed using simple tools and a minimal investment of time. That could have profound impacts on societies everywhere, and particularly in those looking for mental health solutions in a conflict or post-conflict environment.

For instance, In a nation like South Africa, where the apartheid system caused decades of racial conflict and intergenerational trauma, forgiveness has a key role to play in helping society heal and people live better lives.

“Forgiveness does not mean that you what you did is okay, but with forgiveness, I’m going to let go of my right to get even with you,” explains Shaun Joynt, a professor with the South African Theological Seminary, a research associate at the University of the Free State, and one of the site coordinators for the study. “I’m going to leave it up to God to sort you out…. Forgiveness is an altruistic gift.”

In practical terms, the act of forgiveness benefits the forgiver in a myriad of positive psychological and physical ways. It also benefits the person who is forgiven, and can give them a new orientation in the relationship. But it also helps to disrupt cycles of violence, revenge, and animosity. That is particularly important in contexts such as South Africa, Joynt notes, because it promotes social cohesion. “We live in a world where we have to get along with one another.”

These lessons — that forgiveness delivers benefits to forgiver, forgiven, and society — hold true, even in places where conflict is raging, if for no other reason than that eventually all conflicts end and the survivors must build a new society.

“There are no people who would not find themselves in a situation where it is difficult to forgive, except for small children,” says Liudmyla Shtanko, a professor at the Ukrainian Institute of Arts and Science in Bucha (a suburb of Kyiv which was subject to a massacre by Russian forces early in the war).

Shtanko helped find participants for the study in Ukraine and within the refugee community in Germany. “When the war started, I was very, very worried about the situation in Ukraine because many people have a real hate for Russian people, and some parents teach their children to hate other people. I think this can lead to one or two generations living with animosity.”       

Yet, Shtanko adds that she believes “forgiveness is a better way, in all situations in our life. I think forgiveness is understanding that each of us, each person, is not a perfect person. We have some problems… but forgiveness is the way to understand each other and understand our problems.”

When Shtanko first began working with Ukrainian students with the workbook, many of them told her that they weren’t interested in forgiveness. However, as they reached more people with the workbook, she began hearing something different: the students recognized that they needed this and that forgiveness had to be a part of their life. For her own part, in teaching the workbook, she discovered that her own life “became easier, and I understand that I need forgiveness, and other people — I can give them an understanding of the situation and [how] forgiveness can help.”

“It’s a real hope for me that my family can stay normal people who can understand other people, who can forgive, who can continue to provide relationships with other people,” Shtanko says. “I hope we can stop this war, and we can build a new relationship with Russian people.”

The REACH Forgiveness Workbook is available for free download in multiple languages here.

Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at or follow him on Twitter.