In the history of humanity, evidence abounds on the fact that humans have evolved to be cooperative because of its benefits for survival as individuals and as groups. Even today, Dacher Keltner asserts, neighborhoods with more social cohesion and cooperation have better child health and life expectancies, greater high school graduation rates, and less social disorder. But this is not just a human feature. It’s part of nature itself to be cooperative, as we can see in different ecosystems, or the behavior of birds, or animal herds. However, what has been discovered in humans, Emiliana Simon-Thomas explains, is that cooperation has a distinctive effect on the brain. When we cooperate, the reward and pleasure centers of our brain activate, whereas a cooperation breakdown triggers feelings of displeasure and activation of the amygdala, which regulates emotions like fear and aggression.
Studies on the neuroscience of cooperation have shown that humans’ first, quickest impulse is to cooperate, not to compete, explains Emiliana Simon-Thomas in her article The Cooperative Instinct. Here she asserts that people, on average, have an initial impulse to behave cooperatively, and that if they spend more time reasoning and evaluating their response, they tend to behave more selfishly. Researchers David Rand, Joshua Greene, and Martin Nowak discuss their results on the nature of cooperation in their paper Spontaneous Giving and Calculated Greed, stating that “Our results provide convergent evidence that intuition supports cooperation in social dilemmas, and that reflection can undermine these cooperative impulses.”
So, as we can see, we are instinctively cooperative and thus also prone to peacemaking and reconciliation, which are ways back to cooperation when transgressions occur. In his article Born to Blush, Dacher Kelter describes how we have developed sophisticated ways to reconciliate, explaining that our facial expressions, blushing, and body language of embarrassment make people like, forgive, and trust us more. These behaviors communicate respect for others and the acknowledgement of our fault. “The simple elements of the embarrassment display I have documented and traced back to other species’ appeasement and reconciliation processes—the gaze aversion, downward head movements, awkward smiles, and face touches—are a language of cooperation, they are the unspoken ethic of modesty,” says Keltner, concluding with a beautiful metaphor: “Embarrassment is like an ocean wave: It throws you and those near you down to Earth, but you come up embracing, and laughing.”
One fundamental step in the process of reconciliation is the apology. But according to Aaron Lazare, former dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and an authority on the psychology of apology, to be effective, an apology must meet four parts: 1) acknowledgment of the offense; 2) explanation; 3) expressions of remorse, shame, and humility; and 4) reparation. In his article Making Peace Through Apology, he explains that apologies can be a healing force, generating forgiveness and reconciliation in both parties if they satisfy the psychological needs of the offended. “Successful apologies, both private and public, require honesty, generosity, humility, and courage,” he says. In his book On Apology, he explains why some apologies work, why others fail, and why they are so important to individuals, groups, and nations.
There is a lot of research made on how conflict and social harm take a toll on people’s psychological and physical well-being. In conflict with others, we normally have two options: to dwell on the injustice and vengeance or to forgive. According to Dacher Keltner, study after study in the last decade has shown that forgiveness is linked to more life satisfaction, more positive emotions, less negative emotions, less physical symptoms of illness, and less fight-or-flight response. But true forgiveness can only occur when we are able to accept what happened, reduce our desire for revenge, avoid the offender less, and feel more compassion for them. Jack Kornfield, Ph.D. in psychology and a leading teacher that introduced Buddhist mindfulness in the West, says the following about the practice of forgiveness: “Like the practice of compassion, forgiveness does not ignore the truth of our suffering. Forgiveness is not weak. It demands courage and integrity. Yet only forgiveness and love can bring about the peace we long for.” He explains that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning or forgetting, nor does it minimize the offense, and that contrary to the common belief that it is something we give to others, forgiveness is truly something we do for ourselves in a profound personal process. In the following video, Forgiveness Meditation, Kornfield offers guidance and insight into what forgiveness really means: “It is a deep process of the heart. And in the process, you need to honor the betrayal of yourself or others, the grief, the anger, the hurt, the fear. And it can take a long time.”
“Studies are finding connections between forgiveness and physical, mental, and spiritual health, and evidence that it plays a key role in the health of families, communities, and nations,” says Everett L. Worthington, Jr., clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, in his article The New Science of Forgiveness. Here, he suggests that unforgiveness causes hostility and stress that leads to poor health, and that it might compromise the immune system at many levels by throwing off the production of hormones and disrupting the way our cells fight off infection, bacteria, and diseases.
Forgiveness, then, is something we must do for our own well-being, letting go of past grievances that only hurt the one ruminating them. Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, defines forgiveness in the following way: “Forgiveness is the ability to make peace with the word no,” explaining that we feel resentment when reality doesn’t meet our expectations and we hold grudges for past situations. In his book Forgive for Good. A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, he explains that the healthy decision is to forgive whoever caused us wrong and forgive ourselves for the way we responded. In his article The Art of Forgiveness, he describes the process of forgiving and details his research-tested method of nine steps to forgive almost anything. “What we have found is that forgiveness can reduce stress, blood pressure, anger, depression, and hurt, and it can increase optimism, hope, compassion, and physical vitality,” he says in The Choice to Forgive, adding that “Forgiveness takes practice, but it’s a skill almost anyone can learn.”
From our natural evolution as cooperative beings to our innate and courageous capacity to resolve conflict through apology and forgiveness, it’s easy to see that we have built-in mechanisms that allow us to choose for well-being. When we seek to cooperate, to forgive, and to move on with lightheartedness and love in life, we are in the path to happiness. And the most direct way to happiness is gratitude. Let’s find out why in the next post.