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Want To Be Healthier? Try Forgiveness

Flickr Photo/Lulu_Sunset (CC BY 2.0)/

Last year Professor Ryan Fehr had a serious and unexpected death in his family.

“Most of my friends and coworkers were very supportive,” he said. “But a few surprised me by not being particularly supportive, not really mentioning it – it was hurtful and made me feel upset.”

Fehr, who teaches business at the University of Washington, said it got to the point where he didn’t want to interact with those people.

But as someone who researches the power of forgiveness, he knew that letting go would be healthier for him.

“I tried to make this conscious decision to forgive them, to try to restore that relationship,” he told KUOW’s Bill Radke. “I'm really happy that I did, because now these people who have been really good friends in the past continue to be friends today. And if I had let that anger and those ruminations sort of take off, then I may not be speaking with them today.”

That would be bad for him and for his friends, he said, because friends are important.

People who hold grudges are literally held down by the weight of their anger, Fehr said. In studies he conducted, he found that they don’t jump as high as people who can let go, and they perceive hills as steeper.

For his research, Fehr asked one group of people to write down a time they had forgiven. He asked another group to write about a time they didn’t forgive.

The scientists then walked the subjects to a hill and asked them to estimate the hill’s steepness. Those with forgiveness in mind didn’t find the hill so steep – it wasn’t insurmountable.

In a second study, people who had written about forgiveness jumped higher than the others.

Abstract concepts can be applied to concrete experiences, he said.

“When you're rejected, you say, ‘Oh, it feels cold,’ or when you're angry, you sort of feel hot,” he said. “It's not just metaphors; we actually feel these ways.”

This extends to smell, too. People who are suspicious are more likely to believe something smells fishy. And people reminded of summer or love are more likely to taste sweetness.

Same with grudges – the burden is a literal weight that we carry around. By forgiving, we feel lighter.

Fehr recommends that people let go of perceived slights – a driver who cut us off in traffic, or a friend who may have said something rude.

The offenders may not be aware of what they’ve done, he said. Scientists who ask the offenders for their side hear a different version. And the offenders may hope for forgiveness.

“It’s all, ‘This is just a one-time thing; of course I'm a good person,’” he said. “‘I didn't mean to harm.’”

This segment originally aired Jan. 7, 2016.

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