Self-forgiveness may be the key to preventing cognitive impairment, according to a paper published by a UCLA researcher.
Researchers found lower levels of self-forgiveness were associated with greater hostility and cognitive impairment after conducting a study of a sample of American adults over 10 years.
Past research has shown that high hostility was related to poorer results on health indicators, such as body mass index, insulin resistance, lipid ratio, alcohol consumption and smoking behavior.
In this study, some participants exhibited a decreased ability to perform cognitive tasks that affect the quality of everyday life, such as concentrating and making decisions.
George Slavich, a co-author of the study and an associate professor in psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, said hostility is one of various factors that contribute to cognitive impairment.
“Cognitive impairment generally increases with age,” Slavich said. “But it does so at a different rate for all of us and can be accelerated by factors such as stress and hostility.”
Researchers sent a survey to 1,084 adults across the country that measured cognitive abilities by asking participants the names of the current and former United States presidents, the answer to a simple subtraction problem, and the date. They also measured forgiveness by asking participants to indicate if they agreed with statements such as “I often feel that no matter what I do now I will never make up for the mistakes I have made in the past.” Researchers tracked cognitive impairment 10 years later in a follow-up study.
Grant Shields, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Davis and a co-author on the study, said he was surprised to find that the forgiveness of others was not as impactful as self-forgiveness. Loren Toussaint, a psychology professor at Luther College and co-author of the paper, said self-forgiveness is more impactful on one’s health because it is harder to escape the intense feelings of shame and guilt when an individual is the perpetrator instead of a victim of hostility.
“When you recognize (you’re the hostile individual), it’s really hard to cope with,” Toussaint said. “Having recognized you treated someone poorly, you have nothing other than (to) sit with that. You can’t get away with it.”
Slavich said, in order to increase someone’s capacity for self-forgiveness, it is important to recognize one’s own faults and take responsibility for mistakes by apologizing and making amends.
“Remember that no one is perfect, that all human beings are fallible, and that feelings of shame and regret are experiences that everyone has from time to time,” Slavich said. “If you’re feeling those things, you’re not weird, you’re just like everyone else.”
Toussaint said he believes everyone possesses the ability to forgive, and individuals can practice and get better at it, which is why it is important for people to become aware of its positive effects.
“Exercise gets all kinds of attention, but self-forgiveness produces about the same benefits as exercising,” Toussaint said. “(Exercising) takes a lot to do, but forgiveness is something everyone can do.”