Research News

Enright examining the power of forgiveness and harnessing it for medicine

October 08, 2018
by UW Carbone Cancer Center communications

UW-Madison’s Robert Enright is a professor with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology.

He is not — he is sure to emphasize — a physician.

So how did Enright become involved with a study to prolong remissions for patients with the blood cancer, multiple myeloma?

“It was 1985, I went to Memorial Library and the librarian did a mainframe search for published research articles on the idea of forgiveness. After maybe 45 minutes, she came back with a blank piece of paper and said, ‘Sorry, I could find nothing,’” Enright recalls. “Forgiveness had never been scientifically tested and published in a journal.”

enright_bob_workshop07_48737f22c037c0a569e0ad6dff0000cdac6d
Robert Enright, a professor with the School of Education's
No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology, is
pioneering the study of forgiveness.
Enright will be discussing his work at the UW Carbone Cancer Center's annual fall conference. This year's focus will be the unique challenges faced by young adults with cancer.

Working with students and faculty in his department, Enright says they came up with the idea that forgiveness is “being good to those who aren’t good to you.” From there, they began to work on forgiveness as an intervention. First, they developed a forgiveness inventory to identify and measure how someone has been deeply hurt by another individual. Then, they developed forgiveness as a therapy.

As Enright says, there are multiple ways to forgive, including sending the perceived aggressor a kind email or speaking to them directly about the incident that caused emotional pain. “You do not even have to use the word ‘forgive’ to forgive someone,” he says.

With forgiveness therapy developed, Enright and colleagues had something that could be scientifically tested: What happens to people when they start to forgive? Their initial research showed that, for example, depression and anxiety decreased, and hope for the future increased – and these changes often lasted for at least a year.

“We figured, well, we’re really on to something here,” Enright says. “Then the question started coming up, what about helping people in really difficult situations that are truly deeply challenging to them? And the idea of dying came up.”

Enright and his colleagues completed a clinical trial with cancer patients on hospice, where they found that as the patients’ physical health decreased, measures of emotional health increased if they completed forgiveness therapy. Next, they completed a clinical trial with patients in cardiac units, where they observed a physical benefit to forgiveness: cardiac health measures, such as blood flow to the heart, increased in the patients on the intervention. Forgiveness therapy, then, has shown both palliative and physical benefits in medical settings.

“So now we’re working with physicians in Europe in regards to multiple myeloma,” Enright says.

Stress is known to compromise the immune system, and multiple myeloma is a cancer of cells in the immune system. Interestingly, case studies in patients with low-grade multiple myeloma have found disease stabilization if patients complete forgiveness therapy. Could forgiveness – a relatively inexpensive, non-drug-based intervention – become a part of some patients’ treatment plans? Enright and medical colleagues think the answer may be yes, and they are currently developing a clinical trial to understand if forgiveness improves myeloma patient health through measurable biological markers.

“That’s why next we need to do a clinical trial, for cause and effect,” Enright says. “The physicians will measure markers of immune system strength, and then I would bring the hope and anxiety scales to measure the psychological markers.”

Enright will be discussing forgiveness, particularly as it applies to cancer patients, at the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s 17th Annual Fall Conference: Unique Challenges Faced by Young Adults with Cancer, held Friday, October 19 at Monona Terrace in Madison. To learn more and to register, please visit the conference website.