This study examined the impact of race and neighborhood on the relationship between forgiveness and health. We hypothesized: (a) that forgiveness would be especially important for the health of Blacks and (b) that the positive effect of forgiveness on health would be greater among those living in the least deteriorated neighborhoods. In accordance with hypothesis 1, forgiveness of others was associated with better health regarding self-reported health, alcohol use, and number of chronic conditions for Blacks but not for Whites. We found partial support for hypothesis 2. The influence of forgiveness on self-reported health was moderated by neighborhood deterioration such that those living in deteriorated neighborhoods did not witness the same salubrious effects of forgiveness as those living in less deteriorated neighborhoods.
The positive relationship between forgiveness and health for Blacks may be related to forgiving individuals being especially likely to be a part of extended family networks and religious communities. Evidence suggests that Blacks rely more on extended family in day-to-day matters and are more religious than their White counterparts (Krause, 2002
; Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2004
). Both extended family networks and involvement in the Black church can provide a shield from the social and economic disadvantages that commonly erode health and well-being. Extended families play a crucial role in providing comfort when faced with serious problems, assisting family members seeking employment, and helping elderly adults with health problems (Taylor & Chatters, 1991
). Likewise, the Black church provides social support as well as psychosocial resources, such as optimism and meaning in life, that are protective over health (Krause, 2008
). The role of interpersonal forgiveness may be central to maintaining extensive family ties and to religious involvement. Being forgiving is integral to maintaining important social ties as a lack of forgiveness in the presence of conflict can easily lead to the dissolution of beneficial familial and church-based personal relationships.
Living in a deteriorated neighborhood is thought to be detrimental to health for several reasons such as lack of community resources and trust and increased exposure to stress and toxins (Kawachi & Berkman, 2003
). This study, however, provides a new avenue by which noxious neighborhoods can negatively affect health. Negative neighborhoods can blunt the efficacy of forgiveness and possibly other psychological factors that would normally be protective of health. In other words, deteriorated neighborhoods can be harmful because the social and psychological factors that are typically protective of health and well-being may be muted in such noxious environments. This is in line with McCullough’s (2008)
predictions about social context and forgiveness, and to our knowledge, this research is the first empirical test to find support for this theory.
Although forgiveness was found to be less effective in highly deteriorated neighborhoods, we emphasize that future studies should replicate these findings as the argument that forgiveness could be especially useful in these neighborhoods is also feasible. For instance, neighborhood deterioration among older adults is positively related to anger for residents who feel financially disadvantaged or perceive neighborhood problems (Schieman, Pearlin, & Meersman, 2006
). Anger, in turn, shares a strong relationship with a number of deleterious health outcomes including coronary heart disease and physical and cognitive functioning (Smith, Glazer, Ruiz, & Gallo, 2004
). Forgiveness of others has been found to decrease anger and chronic blaming (Thoresen et al., 2000
) and thus could theoretically be beneficial in noxious social environments.
The finding that forgiveness of others was unrelated to health among Whites was unexpected given that past studies employed mostly White samples. There are at least five potential explanations for this disparity. First, most of the work on forgiveness and health comes from convenience samples that are not representative of the broader population. Second, the literature is based on different age groups, and relatively little attention has been given to older adults. Third, there is a large degree of heterogeneity in how forgiveness is measured across studies that could produce differing results. Fourth, much of the forgiveness and health literature pertains to physiological reactivity, acute health issues, and illness symptoms and not more persistent dimensions of health. Fifth, previous studies that ignored race differences may have underestimated the forgiveness–health association by generalizing to Whites and Blacks as a whole when, in fact, the effect may have been stronger for Blacks.
This study was based upon older adults in Unied States and provides additional impetus for several related areas of study. First, future studies should explore the relationship between forgiveness and health at various points in the life course. The health benefits of forgiveness likely build cumulatively over time, but we have little knowledge as to how this relationship unfolds. For example, how will the health of an older Black adult living in a deteriorated neighborhood who maintained a high level of forgiveness since early adulthood compare with someone of the same age who developed a high level of forgiveness in midlife?, does forgiveness in young adulthood confer any health advantages?, or does forgiveness not become important until later stages in life? Without life course–based study designs, we will not be able to answer such important questions. Second, future work should investigate how forgiveness influences specific health outcomes such as hypertension or heart disease. Forgiveness is thought to alter health through specific pathways; therefore, as some evidence suggests, forgiveness may be more relevant to conditions such as cardiovascular health (Toussaint & Cheadle, 2009
; Whited, Wheat, & Larkin, 2010
). Third, social relationships are thought to at least partially mediate the association between forgiveness and health. We have argued that this is probably more so the case for Blacks in disadvantaged contexts. Future work should test for these mediating relationships using a variety of health outcomes. Finally, McCullough (2008)
highlights how the propensity to forgive may be influenced by genetic tendencies. Future work should implement genetically informed research designs to specifically test for genetic–social interactions between forgiveness and the social environment in which people live.
There are several limitations that deserve mention. First, forgiveness and neighborhood deterioration could have been measured in different ways. For instance, after the initial wave of data collection for this study, other equally efficient measures of interpersonal forgiveness that have better psychometric properties were developed (e.g., Brown, 2003
). Second, neighborhood social disorder (a measure not available in these data), based on our theoretical argument, may actually be more relevant for forgiveness than the physical properties of the neighborhood. Third, our dichotomous measure of alcohol use is far from ideal. Future work should employ data sets with enough cases to explore how forgiveness is related to heavy alcohol consumption. Fourth, the data used in this study did not include persons who practice non-Christian religions. Although we suspect the benefits of forgiveness extend to those in other religions, this cannot be inferred from our data.
The social context of both race and neighborhood appears to condition the effects of forgiveness on health. Although Blacks experience potentially salutary effects of forgiveness, deteriorated neighborhood conditions negate them. Further still, it is for Blacks in the least deteriorated conditions for which forgiveness may have the most beneficial effects on health. These effects of forgiveness have not been previously given rigorous consideration. Our findings suggest that such factors as race and neighborhood may be critically important to understand the forgiveness–health relationship. With continued attention to such issues, our understanding will continue to grow regarding when and where forgiveness may be most beneficial and how we might intervene at appropriate times and places.