The work of Professor of Sociology Wes Perkins in the area of how attitudes and values affect the health of individuals was recently featured in the News Journal, Wilmington, Del. The article, which focused on benefits of forgiveness, quoted Perkins, “The benefits come to people whether they practice forgiveness because of religion, ethics, the teachings of parents or the urging of support groups and 12-step programs.”
The article notes, “He’s in the middle of a five-year study looking at how attitudes and values affect the health of more than 1,500 college graduates. He said about 25 percent of people say they forgive quickly, more than 50 percent say they can forgive over time if the offender apologizes, and 20 percent say they tend to be angry, distant or seek revenge.”
These responses are interesting to compare with questions on happiness, he said. Among those who forgive quickly, about 4 percent say they are unhappy. Among those who ultimately forgive, about 6 percent report feeling unhappy. Among those who find it hard to ever forgive, almost 10 percent say they are unhappy.”
Perkins is quoted, “It’s relatively rare for people to report being really unhappy, but the risk more than doubles for those who can’t forgive.”
Perkins, co-director of the HWS Alcohol Education Project, has been called the father of social norms and has published extensively on the prevention of alcohol and drug abuse in young adults. He is the editor of a new book on social norms, called “The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse.”
Perkins has delivered more than 250 guest lectures and keynote addresses both in the United States and internationally. He acts as a consultant in schools nationwide, and his research has been cited by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Time Magazine.
The full article follows.
Holiday’s Theme Is Forgiveness
Gary Soulsman • September 15, 2004
Rosh Hashana begins period of reflection
Today at sundown, when Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman and his family celebrate Rosh Hashana with students from the University of Delaware, they will eat honey-dipped apples to symbolize a hope for a sweet new year.
The celebration begins a 10-day period of self-examination that culminates in the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on Sept. 25, when many of Delaware’s 13,000 Jewish residents will confess their sins.
It’s an optimistic season for Jews who take comfort in God’s forgiveness and listen for the blowing of the shofar (a curved trumpet made from a ram’s horn) that is sounded to awaken followers to a better life.
Judaism also teaches that human forgiveness of others’ foibles has practical and spiritual benefits, an idea also put forth by Buddha, Jesus, Krishna and Confucius
For centuries, forgiveness has been integral to the world’s major faiths and has often been expressed by followers, such as Mother Teresa, who said in a Christian context: “We must make our homes centers of compassion and forgive endlessly.”
In recent years, forgiveness has been praised by American psychologists, too. While there were almost no studies of forgiveness two decades ago, there are now more than 800 American Psychological Association citations. Many show that health and well-being go hand in hand with a willingness to forgive.
Forgiveness is “good not just for the person forgiven but for the person who forgives,” writes Gregg Easterbrook in his book “The Progress Paradox.” Summarizing the research, he writes that those who forgive are “happier, healthier people who live longer than others and know more success in life.”
“The benefits come to people whether they practice forgiveness because of religion, ethics, the teachings of parents or the urging of support groups and 12-step programs,” said Wes Perkins, sociology professor of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
He’s in the middle of a five-year study looking at how attitudes and values affect the health of more than 1,500 college graduates. He said about 25 percent of people say they forgive quickly, more than 50 percent say they can forgive over time if the offender apologizes, and 20 percent say they tend to be angry, distant or seek revenge.
These responses are interesting to compare with questions on happiness, he said. Among those who forgive quickly, about 4 percent say they are unhappy. Among those who ultimately forgive, about 6 percent report feeling unhappy. Among those who find it hard to ever forgive, almost 10 percent say they are unhappy.
“It’s relatively rare for people to report being really unhappy, but the risk more than doubles for those who can’t forgive,” Perkins said.
A gift of healing
No one has to convince educational psychologist Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Enright has found numerous studies on the benefits of forgiveness so compelling that he helped create the International Forgiveness Institute in 1994 to share his belief that “as we give the gift of forgiveness we ourselves are healed.”
But first someone must know they are resentful and courageously examine that point of view, he said. “You don’t shove anger under a rug.”
He also encourages people to ask whether they are better off hanging onto anger or whether they would like to explore “mercy and generosity,” though a wrongdoer does not deserve them.
Taking this path does not condone unjust actions. Nor does it imply reconciliation. “You don’t become a doormat,” Enright said.
He defines forgiveness as turning toward merciful restraint rather than resentment. He adds that marriage is a chance to repeatedly practice restraint.
Popular writers also have taken up the subject, pointing out that self-forgiveness is called for, too.
“You deal with the instance in which you were at fault by showing up,”;fessing up and setting things right to the degree that you can,” said New York writer Victoria Moran, author of “Creating a Charmed Life.” “Then you have to let it go. If letting go is hard for you, keep at it. It’s hard for everybody, but it’s a required course.”
Perkins found in extended interviews with 40 research subjects that they most often had to forgive in others: (1) abuse of alcohol and drugs; (2) infidelity and divorce; and (3) a lack of family acceptance of sexual identity.
But Jeffrie Murphy of Arizona State University cautioned that forgiveness is not for all. Murphy, a professor of law, philosophy and religious studies, said people who have been wronged should not think themselves defective for being vindictive.
“It’s valid to want the person who wronged you to suffer punishment,” said Murphy, author of the book “Getting Even: Forgiveness and its Limits.” “Very often, all it takes is for a person to be properly punished by a court of law. It helps us feel that people are getting what they deserve.”
An act of transformation
Yet even when this doesn’t happen, religious teachings call on followers to think about going an extra mile to forgive. In the King James Bible, Jesus tells Peter to live with a compassionate heart and forgive not seven times – but 70 times seven.
And Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of New York, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, said followers of Judaism are urged to grant forgiveness to anyone who asks for it, particularly if they have sought to make amends. If someone has asked three times for forgiveness and another won’t grant it, the person is automatically forgiven by God and the trespass shifts to the person who won’t forgive, Buchwald said.
Asha Dodia, a Hockessin resident who was raised in a Hindu family, said one of her spiritual teachers explained that forgiveness is for ourselves and not for others. “We have to let go for our own good. It is like a physical hurt,” she said. “When we hold on to hurts, we are not allowing our hurts to heal, we continue to keep the wound open.”
The concept of forgiveness in Islam is important in the worldly life and the afterlife, according to M. Amir Ali, managing director of Chicago’s Institute of Islamic Information & Education. Ali wrote that forgiveness is very important for the afterlife, saying, “Seeking forgiveness is a sign of humility and forgiving others is a sign of magnanimity.”
Ali also wrote that seeking forgiveness and forgiving others brings happiness in the worldly life.
Such religious ideas have a tremendous power to transform people. “The moral force of a teaching that comes from a religious community is much greater than a social scientist saying, well, there’s a health benefit here,” Perkins said.
But, in his view, however you look at forgiveness, it makes sense.
“When you forgive, you’re more at peace with yourself and the other person,” Perkins says. “I think this is why you find it as a teaching in the major religions.
“What we’ve been learning in the last few years is that when you forgive you’re more at peace – and that’s promoting health and well-being, too.”
Staff reporter Patricia Talorico contributed to this article.