Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

Forgive and forget: Be generous with others for your own benefit and meaning

By Janina Steinmetz, Brittany Christian


The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.  ~Mahatma Gandhi


Our relationships with others serve undoubtedly as foundations for having a sense of purpose and meaning in life. The most meaningful moments in our lives could not have happened without others. After all, isn’t marrying the love of your life, your parent proudly watching your graduation, or your friends celebrating your promotion what gives your life meaning? But what happens to your sense of meaning when your friend forgets your birthday year after year, when your sibling again criticizes your cooking during the holidays, or when your partner fails to clean up the dishes even after what feels like hundreds of arguments about that? Such annoying and even hurtful acts will surely impair the relationship at least momentarily. But may such offenses also impair our sense of meaning in life, precisely because these relationships are part of what gives us meaning?

Recent research suggests that problems in close relationships can indeed lead people to feel less meaning in life. Thus, when those threats to an important relationship occur, people will often feel the need to restore their sense of meaning in life, for instance by focusing on their accomplishments and values instead. However, there is also another way to restore one’s sense of meaning after it has received a blow from loved ones acting selfishly or from cruel things said in the heat of a fight. This other path to restore meaning might lead people to heal the relationship through forgiveness. Although being too generous with forgiveness might hold the danger of eventually being mistreated regularly, research has shown that the advantages of forgiveness considerably outweigh the costs. Indeed, forgiveness increases feeling close to one another and leads to more helpful and generous acts in the future. But can forgiving everyday offenses also help to feel us experience meaning and purpose in life? 

Image ©kris krüg 2005

This intriguing question was addressed by assistant professor Daryl R. Van Tongeren from Hope College, MI, and colleagues. These researchers recruited 105 romantic couples and had them fill out a questionnaire at different times over the course of six months. Each month, participants completed a questionnaire to assess how much meaning they currently perceived in their lives. Furthermore, they reported a recent transgression of their partner, whether the partner had made amendments, and how much forgiveness they felt. What the researchers found is indeed fascinating: Having forgiven one’s partner’s offenses, regardless of their severity, increased participants’ current sense of meaning. Although the partner’s offenses temporarily threatened participants’ sense of meaning by threatening the relationship, forgiving the partner can completely restore one’s sense of meaning to its level before the offense happened.

This research resonates well with findings from New Paths to Purpose member Elisabeth Dunn, who showed that money spent on others increases one’s own happiness. It seems that giving generously, whether it is money, time, or even forgiveness, may benefit the giver a lot more than previously thought and enhance the giver’s sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Relationships with others are powerful sources of having a sense of meaning in life. Every partner, family member, or friend will sometimes make mistakes, say hurtful things, or disappoint you. When these things happen, it might be worth to be generous with your forgiveness, because what nourishes your relationships eventually also enriches your sense of meaning and purpose in life.


Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

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