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Searching for the Curative Power of Gratitude and Forgiveness in Groups by Bob Weber

Robert L. Weber, PhD (Fall 2005). Searching for the Curative Power of Gratitude and Forgiveness in Groups, The Group Circle: The Newsletter of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, 1,6.

The secret to aging well is developing the capacity to be grateful and to forgive. Writers and researchers in the behavioral sciences are noting the importance of gratitude and forgiveness for healthy aging (e.g., Seligman, 2002; Vaillant, 2001, 2002), and group therapists can benefit from this research. For example, Dr. George Vaillant (2001) analyzed data from a longitudinal study of Harvard graduates and drew the surprising conclusion that “despite what Freud said, personality is not formed by age 5 or even age 45. After 60, age brings increasingly more adaptive coping mechanisms, a wider social awareness, and better marriages. In short, the study participants who have aged most successfully are those who worry less about cholesterol and waistlines and more about gratitude and forgiveness.” Gratitude and forgiveness may be important healing factors in group therapy.

Often in groups we hear the expression “Thanks for asking.” Is this gratitude? Not in the sense in which gratitude can be most usefully defined as a “curative factor” in groups. The survey of gratitude used by Seligman (2002, p. 71) includes statements such as (1)“I have so much in life to be thankful for;” (2) “When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for;” and (3) “As I get older, I find myself more able to appreciate the people, events, and situations that have been part of my life history.”

Minimally, “gratitude is an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act” (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000, pp. 56-57). It is also an excellence of character that helps one to flourish in life, a quality that contributes to the completeness or wholeness of a person. In fact, these definitions suggest that gratitude may be construed in a variety of ways, for example, as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, or an attitude.

Likewise, forgiveness is a more complex phenomenon than the adage “Forgive and forget!” would suggest. Enright et al. (In McCullough et al. 2000, p.8) define forgiveness as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who has unjustly hurt us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her.”

It is also important to understand what forgiveness is not, so that it will not become a saccharine, meaningless exercise. Forgiveness is not: (1) pardoning, i.e., a legal term; (2) condoning, i.e., a justification of the offense; (3) excusing, i.e., the offender had a good reason for committing the offense; (4) forgetting, i.e., the memory of the offense has simply decayed or slipped out of conscious awareness; (5) denying, i.e., an unwillingness to perceive the harmful injuries that one has incurred; or (6) reconciliation, i.e., the restoration of a relationship.

Should we as group leaders look to access and cultivate these two factors in our work for the therapeutic benefit of our patients? If we do not, are we missing two very important “therapeutic factors” not mentioned in Yalom’s (1995) well-known list? While most group clinicians operate from a diagnostic and treatment approach that emphasizes the psychopathological elements of our groups and group members, the work of Vaillant, Seligman and others (Czikszentmihalyi, 1997) places emphasis on the healthy functioning of the individual and is a more positive psychology. In fact, many group therapeutic factors have a more positive cast, i.e., cohesiveness, the instillation of hope, and altruism.

Psychological researchers are actively investigating gratitude and forgiveness in people’s lives. Some clinicians already apply them quite explicitly in group therapy settings. Some of these researchers (Seligman, 2002; Worthington, 1998) have begun to generate protocols for groups to study the effect of interventions intended to evoke people’s gratitude and forgiveness and the conditions that contribute to their realization.

Seligman’s research, for example, strongly suggests that a person’s happiness and life satisfaction grow as he/she increases a sense of gratitude. His research protocol involved two exercises and the completion of a survey of gratitude. For the first exercise, he asked participants to choose an important person from their past who had made a major positive difference in their lives and to whom they had never fully expressed their thanks. Then, he asked them to prepare a testimonial, just long enough to cover one laminated page. Next, each person was to arrange a face-to-face meeting without telling the individual its purpose. During that meeting the participant reads the testimonial, then lets the other person react to it. Finally, both reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important and that generate gratitude; then, the laminated testimonial is given as a gift.

In Seligman’s second exercise, he suggests that participants set aside five free minutes each night for 14 days. On the first night, they take his surveys of general happiness and life satisfaction. Next, each day they are asked to think about the previous 24 hours, writing down up to five things in their lives for which they are grateful or thankful. These might include things such as a friend’s generosity, wonderful parents, or good health. On the last night of the two weeks, participants repeat the general happiness and life satisfaction scales and compare their scores to the first night’s scores. If they score higher on the latter gratitude survey, they are encouraged to incorporate this practice of gratitude reflection into their nightly routine.

Worthington (1998), developed a group format in which he uses a model called “REACH,” to deepen people’s capacity for forgiveness. REACH is an acronym for the five steps involved in order to develop forgiveness: R—recall the hurt in detail; E—empathize with the offender to the extent possible; A—give the altruistic gift of forgiveness; C—commit yourself to forgive publicly; and H—work to hold onto the forgiveness you have begun to develop. A first glance at this protocol might leave one feeling that Worthington is Pollyannaish about the possibility of cultivating a forgiving spirit. However, when one realizes that his interest in the subject was probably born, at least in part, of the brutal murder of his very elderly mother by two young intruders during an attempted robbery, and, we can only guess, of his own struggle to forgive, the impact of his research and approach is given much more substantial power.

My own interest in gratitude and forgiveness is motivated by remembrances of my father, a man who possessed a deep capacity for both gratitude and forgiveness. I recall an incident when my family was at a religious service, and I was in my twenties. The man who conducted the service noted that my father was crying profusely and asked him what was happening. My father responded, simply, “Sometimes you don’t know just how lucky you are!” The context of the service and my earlier experiences with my father’s tears at such times, which I witnessed with great admiration, suggested that his response was derived from a deep and heartfelt sense of gratitude that was accompanied by a capacity for forgiveness that still goes beyond my own.

Spurred on by these remembrances, I became curious and discovered a variety of sychological researchers who were actively and earnestly investigating the meaning and efficacy of these two phenomena in people’s lives. These experiences have encouraged me to cultivate them as therapeutic factors in my own long-term sychodynamic therapy groups, not using specific protocols such as Seligman or Worthington do, but in rather preliminary and exploratory ways. Here are two examples of my rudimentary efforts.

Gratitude. A female patient continually complained about how rotten her life was in all areas: she was financially in debt; her relationships were problematic; her work was frustrating and unsatisfying; and she still grappled with significant family-of-origin issues. For her, there was never enough and she was “not enough.” In the midst of one session, I asked if she were grateful for anything in her life. I suggested she think about anything for which she might have a sense of gratitude. She returned the following session and appeared to be in a much better mood, saying that she had begun to re-discover things about her life and herself for which she was grateful. This shift in perspective has enabled her to make greater use of the group for her work and to become a much more valuable and productive member.

Forgiveness. A male patient talked about his mother in a very angry tone while rofessing that his relationship with her was good. I asked him if he had, indeed, forgiven her for the offenses he kept listing. At first, he protested that he had forgiven her and forgotten her misdeeds; however, after further exploration with the help of the group members, he realized that he still wanted to make her pay for her offenses against him. When the subject of his mother surfaced again at a later group, he realized that his increasing reluctance to come to the group sessions was connected to the fact that he was still very embittered and that he continued to pay a high price for his unforgiving disposition. This was evident in the persistent scowl on his face and a tension his body could not hide. As he slowly deepened his capacity to forgive her, his body became noticeably more relaxed, and he actually began to smile more genuinely than he ever had in the group.

While my work on searching for and cultivating gratitude in my psychodynamic groups is still in the early stages, I am convinced, based on these and other group examples, and on my own personal attempts to enhance my own capacities for gratitude and forgiveness, that incorporating them as therapeutic factors adds a very powerful force for effecting change in the members of groups and promoting greater well-being in living. I am also convinced that gratitude and forgiveness are losely linked. If a person is filled with gratitude, he or she cannot help but forgive, and if a person is capable of forgiving others, then, he or she is much more able to be grateful. Try to cultivate these qualities yourself and see if you agree.

You might even live longer!


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.

Emmons, R.A., & Crumpler, C.A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising the evidence, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(1), 56-69.

McCullough, M.E., Pargament, K.I., & Thoresen, C.E. (2000). Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice, New York: The Guilford Press.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Vaillant, G.E. (2002). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Vaillant, G.E., A prescription for aging well, The Boston Globe, December 23, 2001.

Worthington, E.L. (1998). Dimensions of Forgiveness: Psychological Research and Theological Perspectives.Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.

Yalom, I.D. (1995). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (4th Edition). New York: Basic Books.

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