Researchers asked 1,423 American adults to rate themselves on how likely they were to forgive themselves for the things they did wrong and forgive others for hurting them. The participants also answered survey questions about how they had slept in the past 30 days, how they would rate their health at the moment, and how satisfied they were with their life.
The results suggest people who were more forgiving were more likely to sleep better and for longer, and, in turn, have better physical health. They were also more satisfied with life. This was true of people who were more forgiving of others and people who were more forgiving of themselves — although forgiving others had a stronger relationship with better sleep.
Forgiveness of self and others “may help individuals leave the past day’s regrets and offenses in the past and offer an important buffer between the events of the waking day and the onset and maintenance of sound sleep,” wrote the researchers, led by Luther College professor Loren Toussaint. Otherwise, as many troubled sleepers have experienced, we might have too much on our minds to get any rest.
People who don’t forgive, researchers explain, tend to linger on unpleasant thoughts and feelings, such as anger, blame, and regret. This can involve painful rumination — focused attention and repetitive thoughts about distress. That resentment or bitterness could be detracting from sleep quality and well-being, the study suggests.
While we know sleep is important for overall health, this study offers a new perspective on forgiveness as a key factor in achieving healthy sleep. The more we can minimize ruminating about unresolved issues, the better our sleep (and, in turn, our overall health) may be.
As the researchers state: “If forgiveness of others and self-forgiveness can help people cope with the day’s psychological and emotional burdens in a way that frees one’s mind and promotes a more restful mental state for sleep, then they support the health-related process of sleep in meaningful ways.”
This study doesn’t prove that forgiveness causes better sleep, but it does suggest people who tend to forgive also tend to sleep better.
So while it isn’t guaranteed to resolve your sleeping issues, forgiveness could be something to try out. Letting go of lingering difficult thoughts and feelings may help you not only avoid that stare-down with your clock tonight, but also feel better tomorrow.
A version of this piece was originally published in Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. It has been adapted, with permission, for the Inspired Life blog.