How to Build a More Forgiving Community


Counseling-Tribeca

As groups, organizations, and nations, we can find love and healing after being wronged.

There are many ways to hurt another person. There are also many ways to forgive that hurt.

On an individual level, we can forgive ourselves or we can forgive others. Self-forgiveness is the experience of getting successfully past self-condemnation by responsibly dealing with our shortcomings and restoring a healthy sense of self. For some, it is important to feel forgiven by God or a higher power. Forgiving another person can be seen as a victim’s altruistic and loving response to an offender’s injurious act.

Research suggests that these acts of individual-level forgiveness carry enormous mental and physical health benefits. Numerous studies have documented that forgiveness can reduce stress hormones, and it may improve both immune-system and cardiovascular functioning. In addition, forgiveness reduces rumination and associated depression, anxiety, anger, obsessive and compulsive cognition, and even psychosomatic illness. Forgiveness also improves relationships—and many studies show that the quality of our relationships is the single best predictor of happiness.

Is it possible for these benefits to be felt by groups, organizations, communities, and entire nations, regions, or cultures?

Community forgiveness—and on a larger scale, societal forgiveness—is a collectively embraced decision to change negative behavior, thoughts, feelings, and motivations toward an offending group or groups of people. Community injustices vary greatly in their nature. Some affect a small portion of the community; others touch the lives of virtually all members. Some community offenses are minor and others are quite severe, even life-threatening. As such, community forgiveness is a process that unfolds within a particular place and time.

Can we make forgiveness more possible and likely within a specific community—within individuals, between them, and in relation to another community? Two separate studies show that it is possible to foster forgiveness in communities. Both employed two-week forgiveness awareness-raising campaigns that used methods such as public lectures, student newspaper articles, debates, panels, group discussions, and small-group education. The studies show that these campaigns helped community members replace negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with positive, generous, and loving ones.

In a recent study, we found that even a short forgiveness campaign can help community members (as individuals) feel more forgiveness, more love, and less conflict. Our previous community interventions focused on mere awareness-raising through workshops and other kinds of education. However, by doing those studies we recognized that raising awareness did have a positive effect on changing people’s dispositions to forgive.

In this new study, we decided to strongly engage community members and offer multiple options for experiencing forgiveness within the community. Our results exceeded expectations—and offer some useful lessons for those who would promote forgiveness within their community. To read more from EVERETT L. WORTHINGTON JR., BRANDON J. GRIFFIN, LOREN TOUSSAINT, click here.