To ensure future delivery of the Authentic Happiness Coaching Newsletter,
please add to your address book, safe sender list or buddy list.

August 30, 2005

Ben Dean Ph.D.

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future--Paul Boese

A friend of mine told me this story. A large, somewhat menacing sign hung behind her father's desk, the desk of a typically tough U.S. Marine major: "To err is human; to forgive is divine--and our policy is to do neither!" Amusing? Yes. Intimidating? Maybe. But what is our own policy when it comes to forgiveness? We certainly know plenty about what it is to err, but what about forgiving? What does forgiveness imply, and should we be interested in promoting this virtue for our clients and for ourselves?

[Stop right here and take the VIA Survey of Signature Strengths. If you've already taken it, check your results to see where in the rank order of the 24 strengths that "forgiveness" falls for you.

If you don't know how to find the rank order, follow the directions in the Notes section below.***

I know a highly successful small business coach whose secret weakness is that forgiveness is his 24th ( least developed) strength. When he has a "rupture" or an intense argument with a colleague, client, or business associate, he "cuts them off at the knees." For example, If theyare a client--he refunds their money by FedEx, expunges their name from his data base, does his best to forget about them, and never again return their emails or phone calls. In fact, I think he looks forward to the day that they email him--so they will know for sure that he is freezing them out ... forever.) By contrast, for my wife, Janice, to my everlasting good fortune, forgiveness is a top signature strength stopped, didn't you? You now know where "forgiveness" falls in your 24 strengths?... Good.]

Forgiveness Defined

Forgiveness entails a series of changes that occur within an individual who has been offended or hurt in some way by another person. When individuals forgive, their thoughts and actions toward the transgressor become more positive (e.g., more peaceful or compassionate) and less negative (e.g., less wrathful or avoidant). In addition, forgiveness cannot be coerced, but must be freely chosen by the one who was wronged.

Baskin and Enright (2005, p. 80) distinguish forgiveness from condoning, excusing, reconciling, and forgetting:

When someone condones or excuses, he or she realizes there was no unfairness. If, for example, Jack takes Mary’s car to drive an injured child to the hospital, Mary, on realizing what had happened, would not forgive Jack, but excused him under the circumstances.

Reconciliation involves two people coming together again in mutual trust, whereas forgiveness is one person’s choice to abandon resentment and offer beneficence in the face of unfairness. One can forgive without reconciling.

When one forgives, he or she rarely forgets the event. People tend to recall traumatic events, but on forgiving, a person may remember in new ways—not continuing to harbor the deeply held anger.

Enabling and Inhibiting Factors
Forgiving those who have wronged us belongs in the “more easily said than done” category. Consider your own forgiveness history. Whom have you forgiven? And what seemed unforgivable? Research on forgiveness has identified several conditions or factors that make forgiveness more or less likely:

  • People tend to be more likely to forgive when the offense took place within a close, satisfying relationship (Finkel and colleagues, 2002; McCullough and colleagues, 1998).

  • Forgiveness is related to the character strength of empathy. Individuals are better able to forgive when they can empathize with the offender (McCullough, et al, 2003).

  • The relationship between forgiveness and justice is complex. Traditionally, researchers have suggested that a strong belief in justice can be a barrier to forgiveness. However, Karremans and Lange (2005) recently demonstrated that individuals are actually more likely to forgive when they are first primed to think about justice. The researchers hypothesize that whereas a “retributive” (eye-for-an-eye) sense of justice may be a barrier to forgiveness, a broader, more “pro-social” sense of justice may promote forgiveness.

  • We are better able to forgive when we do not blame the offender for the act (“It was an accident”). In contrast, we are less likely to forgive acts that were intentionally committed—especially if they have severe consequences (Boon & Sulsky, 1997).

  • A tendency to ruminate makes forgiveness much less likely (McCullough, Bellah, et al., 2001).

  • We are more likely to forgive as we age. Young children tend to be the least willing to forgive, and older adults are the most willing (Mullet & Girard, 2000).

  • As you would expect, apologies help. We are more likely to forgive if we receive an apology from the transgressor (Darby & Schlenker, 1982; McCullough and colleagues, 1997, 1998).

Forgiving Ourselves

The chapter on forgiveness in the VIA handbook focused on forgiveness as it relates to other people. I thought it interesting that they omitted a discussion of forgiving oneself. In his Small Treatise on The Great Virtues (p. 131), philosopher André Comte-Sponville eloquently explains why self-forgiveness is critical:

Can one forgive oneself? Of course, since one can hate oneself and overcome self-hatred. What hope would there be for wisdom otherwise? Or for happiness? Or for peace? We must forgive ourselves for being merely what we are. And also forgive ourselves—when we can do so without injustice—for feeling hatred or pain or anger so strong that we cannot forgive. Fortunate are the merciful, who fight without hatred or hate without remorse!

Forgiveness Interventions

In a recent meta-analysis, Baskin and Enright (2004) reviewed the effectiveness of nine empirical studies of forgiveness interventions. They found that the existing interventions could be grouped into three primary categories: (1) decision-based interventions, (2) process-based individual interventions, and (3) process-based group interventions.

Decision based interventions tend to emphasize a defining moment when an individual chooses to forgive. Forgiveness is a decision that is made: “I choose to forgive him” or “I will no longer allow my anger to eat away at me.”

In contrast, process-based interventions emphasize forgiveness that is a gradual process taking time and sustained effort. A cognitive decision to forgive is one part of a longer journey. Individuals may decide they want to “let go” but then struggle with continued anger or resentment.

Interestingly, interventions that emphasized the process of forgiveness tended to be more effective than cognitive, decision-based interventions. And among the process-based interventions reviewed, the one-on-one interventions were more effective than the group-based interventions.

A Process Model of Forgiveness

Developmental psychologist Robert Enright provides a process model of forgiveness that could be applied to forgiveness interventions with individuals or groups.

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Heller, 1998), he outlined the following nine steps toward forgiveness:

  1. Acknowledge your emotions. Whether you are angry, hurt, ashamed, or embarrassed (or some combination of the above), acknowledge your emotional reaction to the wrongdoing.

  2. Go beyond identifying the person who hurt you and articulate the specific behaviors that upset or hurt you.

  3. Make the choice to forgive.

  4. Explain to yourself why you made the decision to forgive. Your reasons can be as practical as wanting to be free of the anger so that you can concentrate better at work.

  5. Attempt to “walk in the shoes” of the other person. Consider that person’s vulnerabilities.

  6. Make a commitment to not pass along the pain you have endured—even to the person who hurt you in the first place.

  7. Decide instead to offer the world mercy and goodwill. At this stage, you may wish to reconcile with the other person (but that’s not necessary).

  8. Reflect on how it feels to let go of a grudge. Find meaning in the suffering you experienced and overcame.

  9. Discover the paradox of forgiveness: As you give the gift of forgiveness to others, you receive the gift of peace.

Hope you enjoyed this newsletter! We'll have at least two next month. Then in October, we'll continue under our new name, Coaching Toward Happiness. See you soon.



Ben Dean, Ph.D.


Baskin and Enright (2004)." Intervention studies on forgiveness: A meta-analysis." Journal of Counseling and Development 82, 79-90.

Heller, S. (1998, July 17). "Emerging field of forgiveness studies explores how we let go of grudges." The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Karremans, J. C. (2004). "Does activating justice help or hurt in promoting forgiveness?" Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 41, 290-297.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press.


***Take or retake the VIA Signature Strengths Survey at
When you have completed the survey and have your top five strengths, go to . Enter your User Name and Pass Word. And you'll find the rank order of your 24 strengths including where in the hierarchy forgiveness falls. Simply seeing this may make this essay more meaningful.

To pursue the study of forgiveness in more depth, go to the chapter on Forgiveness in Character Strengths and Virtues. You may also decide to start with the web, looking for articles cited by search engines at, for example, or Often you will find the complete article online.

About AHC

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the founder of the field of Positive Psychology, a Past President of the American Psychological Association (1998), and the author of 22 books including his most recent best seller, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. His work is captured at With Chris Peterson, he is co-author of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Classification and Handbook. With Dr. Dean, he co-founded Authentic Happiness Coaching LLC. He is also founder of Reflective Happiness LLC.

Ben Dean Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, and the founder of MentorCoach LLC. He speaks on coaching throughout the US and publishes two free coaching e-newsletters: "The Therapist as Coach" for helping professionals (, "The eCoach Newsletter" for interdisciplinary professionals ( and the forthcoming "Coaching Toward Happiness" e-newsletter. Coaching since 1981, he is a Master Certified Coach, the highest designation of the International Coach Federation. With Dr. Seligman, Ben is co-founder of Authentic Happiness Coaching LLC.

Reflective Happiness LLC. Dr. Seligman's new website,, is focused on helping members lead more fulfilling and satisfying lives. For the Reflective Happiness community, Marty has designed a Happiness Plan for each member that can accurately measure, improve and sustain their emotional well-being for a more fulfilling and satisfying life. The website also has Happiness Building Exercises, Question & Answer Sessions with Marty, Community Building forums, a Positive Psychology Book Club, and a members-only newsletter covering the latest developments that Marty has found in the field. For more details, see

MentorCoach LLC. Dr. Dean founded MentorCoach,, in 1997. It is an internationally recognized coach training school accredited by the International Coach Federation and focused on training helping professionals to develop rewarding coaching practices. Fall Programs begin Wednesday, September 29th at 8:00 PM Eastern and Thursday, September 29th at 12:00 PM Eastern. For Fall class times, see For detailed MentorCoach Training Program description, see For Master Classes open to the public, see

AHC Speaking Schedule

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

Marty will be speaking in:

  • Norway, University of Bergen, August 30, 2005
  • Oslo, 3rd Norwegian Congress of Psychology, September 1, 2005
  • Glasgow, (Radisson), Sept 5-6, 2005
  • Cincinnati, Ohio, Butler County Commissioner's Forum, Sept 16, 2005
  • Nashville, Tennessee, Centerstone, Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, September 22, 2005
  • Washington, D.C. Positive Psychology Summit, Gallup Headquarters, September 30-Oct 2, 2005
  • York, UK, The Pacific Institute Global Conference, November 11, 2005
  • Nashville, Tennessee,Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Marriott, November 30, 2005
  • Anaheim, California, Evolution of Psychotherapy, Erickson Foundation, Convention Center, December 9-10, 2005

Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Ben will be speaking on "Coaching and the New Science of Happiness" in:

  • Raleigh-Durham, NC, Radisson at Research Triangle Park, September 9, 2005
  • Atlanta, GA, Sheraton Buckhead, September 11, 2005
  • Arlington, VA, Hyatt Arlington, September 25, 2005
  • San Jose, CA, November 13, 2005
  • Philadelphia, PA, November 20, 2005
  • Denver, CO TBA
  • Seattle, WA, SEATAC Marriott, TBA
  • Boston, MA TBA
  • Chicago, IL TBA

For details, visit


Subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness Newsletter... It's free.