Issue date: June 09, 1999

Stanford Forgiveness Project's Dr. Frederic Luskin studies why learning to forgive might be good for the body as well as the soul Stanford Forgiveness Project's Dr. Frederic Luskin studies why learning to forgive might be good for the body as well as the soul (June 09, 1999)


Let's face it: when it comes to health issues, people are willing to consider almost anything. Oat bran, tomatoes, broccoli, sprouts -- you name it, there's a study that says one dietary addition or another will tip that crucial balance between living and merely existing.

And any casual television watcher can attest to the number of exercise programs and infomercials that claim one regimen or another will tighten this, lift that, or improve something else in such a manner that everything else will magically melt away.

For Dr. Frederic Luskin, a researcher at Stanford who specializes in the connection between spirituality and health, all that so-called expert advice is all very well and good. But he says one of the most critical elements of health has nothing to do with what we put in our bodies, or what we do to them.

Dr. Luskin and his colleague, Dr. Carl Thoreson, say that kindness can be a cure in itself -- both for people who are themselves in need of a little healing, and the people in their lives.

Dr. Luskin is studying how forgiveness can help people become healthy. And for the 150 or so volunteers who have taken part in the Stanford Forgiveness Project so far, the idea of forgiveness -- letting go of the hurt caused by other people or by forces they see as being outside themselves -- has translated into real results. They say they don't just feel better emotionally; they feel better physically, as well.

"Everyone has someone to forgive," says Dr. Luskin, an intense, intensely informal man who insists on being called "Fred." While he eschews academic titles, he has the professorial uniform down: Today he's wearing a businesslike button-down shirt tucked into sweatpants. And while the look is a little eccentric, it's also emblematic of the kind of research that is his work: He's blending the quantifiable, numbers-driven scientific method with a much more informal, emotional base.

The combination might be a little startling, but it works -- at least for the people who come to him for help in dealing with their unresolved anger.

"When we first started talking to people about the project, and they asked us why we were studying forgiveness and health, I told them to look around their offices and ask people if they hadn't been ticked off by someone recently," he says. "Getting angry and needing to forgive are universal phenomena, but the skills to forgive are inadequately taught."

Holding on to anger for too long can obviously affect a person's emotional health. But hanging on to that anger, Dr. Luskin says, can also have real effects on people's physical health.

He cites several studies that show how anger can affect the cardiovascular system by adding to a person's general level of stress. Other studies have indicated that patients who have had heart attacks have been able to improve their general health by acting in a more forgiving and less angry manner.

Anger in itself isn't the problem. "Anger is a valuable emotion," Dr. Luskin says. "It gives you terrific information. It can tell you where your boundaries are, and what's appropriate."

Anger during a situation, or anger at a situation, is fine; hanging on to that anger after the situation is long over, Dr. Luskin says, isn't.

"The thing about long-term or unresolved anger," he says, "is we've seen it resets the internal thermostat. When you get used to a low level of anger all the time, you don't recognize what's normal. It creates a kind of adrenaline rush that people get used to. It burns out the body and makes it difficult to think clearly -- making the situation worse."

Additionally, Dr. Luskin says, when the body releases certain enzymes during anger and stress, cholesterol and blood pressure levels go up -- not a good long-term position to put the body in.

His Stanford dissertation and subsequent research after receiving his doctorate look at ways of stepping back from that anger and giving it up. People involved in the study were asked to rate various aspects of their emotional lives before undergoing a series of exercises.

They then re-evaluated themselves after treatment. In the first wave of the project, which involved only Stanford students who volunteered because they recalled a specific grievance or hurt they wanted to heal, the subjects reported a 70 percent reduction in how much hurt they felt about the specific incident, as well as a 20 percent reduction in their experience of anger.

In the next phase of experiments, which starts in mid-July, Dr. Luskin hopes to add other, more objective indicators -- such as cardiac and immune function -- to the study.

But for those of us who aren't part of the clinical trial, Dr. Luskin says there are still important techniques to take away from the Forgiveness Project. The techniques may have rather uninspiring names -- Rational Emotive Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy being but two of the more official-sounding -- but, Dr. Luskin says, their results can be truly inspirational for people trying to let go of pain.

"The basic idea is: Life throws you curves, and most of us don't start off emotionally prepared to deal with them," Dr. Luskin says. "That arrogance keeps us from being healthy."

He teaches a number of public classes designed to help people let go of just that arrogance. Each series -- at six weekly sessions, about an hour and a half each -- begins with a group of visualization exercises. "We try to teach people how to live in the present. You are here now, and nothing can be done about the past," Dr. Luskin says.

Sessions four and five involve cognitive disputation therapy -- another of those compound terms -- which roughly translates into a process of questioning the internal rules most of us build up inside ourselves over time.

"Basically, at some point you have to realize that, even if your mother was distant to you when you were a child, you can't live in the present and say, 'I can never be OK, because my mother was distant when I was a child.' It's unfortunate that it happened, but at some point you have to move forward and let it go," he says.

The sixth and last session looks at forgiveness as prevention. "You have to expect the world not to be perfect," Dr. Luskin says. "If you don't wake up expecting it to be, you won't feel aggrieved when it isn't, and you won't keep fueling that burden of anger."

Practicing forgiveness doesn't have to mean practicing to be a saint, or a doormat. But if Dr. Luskin's studies are any indication, it may just be part of practicing better physical health.

Not to mention the emotional effects. "I think generally learning to be more forgiving is a part of learning to be more kind," he says. "That means learning to incorporate others' experiences into your own, to have less separation between yourself and the world."

Heading to Esalen in just a few hours for a conference, he nevertheless takes a few more minutes to explain his point. "Practicing forgiveness can broaden the sense of who you are," he says, thoughtfully. "It doesn't just preserve the self; it helps you let others in." 

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