The How of Happiness – Learning to Forgive

And so we arrive at the seventh of the 12 activities that you can use to increase your own happiness as listed in  “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, which is:

Learning to Forgive

To me this is one of the hardest activities (and because of that it was not one of the ones I initially chose to pursue), but if you can do this as I am slowly learning to do, the rewards can be great.

In the book Lyubomirsky tells the story of a woman who was stabbed to death in South Africa by four men.  That woman’s mother then later comes to the country, helps secure the release of these men and actually forgives and HIRES one of them to help in her work.

And I say: “Whoa! I don’t know if I’d go that far!”

And yet … why not.

Why is forgiveness so powerful?  Because when we are wronged, in whatever way, our first inclination is to respond negatively.  In general there are three typical responses: to want to do equal harm to them, to avoid, or to revenge in another manner.

All negative things, and as we are learning, the more you let negative things into your life the more, the more you will have a negative life.

So the power of forgiveness is allowing yourself to release these negative feeling and possibly even find some positive ways of dealing with this hurt.

And lets be clear about what it means to forgive.  Psychologists define true forgiveness as:  When you experience a shift in thinking such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good (or benefit that relationship) has increased.

Forgiveness is NOT:

  • Reconciliation – it does not necessarily involve a re-establishment of the relationship.
  • Condoning – which implies justifying, minimizing or tolerating the hurt
  • Excusing – offering extenuating circumstances or a “good reason” or denying the harm.
  • Forgetting – often to really forgive we must ponder the hurt, which we cannot do if we’ve forgotten it.

Finally, understand that forgiveness is something you are doing for YOU and you alone, NOT for the other person (they may or may not care what you are doing)

So how do we forgive?  Here are some possible things to do:

  • Appreciate being forgiven – recall when you did something to wrong another and they forgave you.  Remember how that felt, why do you think they did it?  Ponder these things in writing, with another, or simply by yourself.
  • Seek Forgiveness – if you did something for which you have not been forgiven, write a letter of apology or tell them in person.  Acknowledge what you did, apologize, and ask for forgiveness.  NOTE, this exercise is for YOU so whether you actually send the letter or not us up to you.
  • Imagine Forgiveness – First, identify a particular person whom you blame for a wrong to you.  Second, engage in an imagination exercise where you imagine empathizing with that person and granting them forgiveness.  During this process really get into what it feels like to be other person (see Practice Empathy below).  Also consider your own feelings in detail.  It may take a few tries to really get it right, but if you can do it (as participants in a study did) you may find you have greater sense of control over your thoughts, less sadness/anger, and less reactivity in physical stress responses.
  • Write a letter of forgiveness – Like writing the letter seeking forgiveness for yourself, this one need not be sent, but the practice of writing down how you feel and letting go of the anger, resentment and bitterness, can help to lift your spirits.  The best way to do this is to write in detail about the offense done to you, illustrate how you were affected by it and continue to be hurt by it (holding on to anger, etc). State what you wish the other person would have done instead and end with and explicit statement of forgiveness.
  • Practice Empathy in general – try seeing things from others perspectives.  This is not about excusing a behaviour, but simply understanding that they like you are human and we all do things that may hurt others at times.
  • Consider Charitable Attributions – one way to do this is to write a letter you would like to receive from the transgressor, where they apologize and ask for forgiveness.
  • Ruminate Less – as we say in the post on overthinking, pondering how much these things hurt over and over again, only makes it hurt more.
  • Make Contact –  actually try to make positive contact with this person – send a letter telling them how you feel and forgiving the, or say it in person.  Just be prepared that it might backfire (as they may not think they did anything wrong).  But if you can do this, it may save a relationship, or build a new and positive one like in the story above.

Finally, my own thoughts.  Remember that sometimes the hardest person to forgive … is yourself.

Next time: Increasing Flow

Until then, keep laughing and forgiving.

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