Many of us have had the experience of tossing and turning at night, wishing we could sleep, watching the minutes tick by on the clock by our bedside. In fact, one-third of Americans say they lie awake at least a few nights a week.
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 suggested that 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.
When we don’t forgive, the researchers say, we 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 our distress. Ultimately, this study suggests, that resentment or bitterness we are harboring could be detracting from our sleep quality and our well-being.
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. In practice, the more we minimize the rumination that we engage in 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; only that people who tend to be forgiving also tend to sleep better. So while it isn’t guaranteed to completely resolve your sleeping issues, forgiveness could be one constructive practice to try, when you feel ready. Letting go of some of the difficult thoughts and feelings you’re hanging on to may help you not only avoid that stare-down with your clock and feel better tomorrow.
Sophie McMullen is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of California–Berkeley studying psychology with a double minor in Spanish and public policy. She is a research and editorial assistant for Greater Good magazine, which first published this article.