Researchers at the University of Missouri College of Human Environmental Sciences had found that forgiveness – a process often fraught with guilt and significant anxiety – has different outcomes depending on a person‘s gender. The study, recently published in Aging & Health, showed that older women who forgave their abusers were less likely to suffer from depression, regardless of whether they felt forgiven by others, whereas men who forgave, yet did not receive forgiveness from their peers were at the highest risk of developing the proverbial “blues”.
According to Christine Proulx, a co-author on the study and an associate professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Science, people who are inclined to forgive those who’d hurt them are not necessarily motivated by ethical considerations – letting go of blame often feels liberating and helps people move on with their lives. Somewhat surprisingly, however, this appears to apply to older women more than it does to similarly-aged men.
The conclusion was arrived at by analysing data from Wave 2 of the Religion, Aging and Health Survey – a national research endeavour involving over a thousand participants aged 67 and older. The stated reason for choosing to study forgiveness in an elderly population is older people’s tendency to reflect deeply on their lives, paying an especially large chunk of attention towards past relationships and hurtful transgressions – perpetrated both by themselves and by their loved ones.
“As people get older, they become more forgiving,” said study lead author Ashley Ermer. “Our population was also predominately Christian, which may influence individuals’ willingness to forgive and could function differently among individuals with different beliefs.”
Depression was measured using the eight item short form from the Centre for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression (CES-D) scale. Self-rated health was assessed with a one-item indicator.
The researchers found men and women who feel unforgiven by others are somewhat protected against depression when they are able to forgive themselves. Yet, the researchers said they were surprised to find that forgiving oneself did not more significantly reduce levels of depression.
“Self-forgiveness didn’t act as the protector against depression,” Proulx said. “It’s really about whether individuals can forgive other people and their willingness to forgive others.”
Proulx and Ermer hope their study will help counsellors working with older adults develop more gender-appropriate strategies for dealing with symptomatic depression and contribute to literature pertaining to forgiveness and health in later life.