19 Ramadaan, 1430:
الَّذينَ يُنفِقونَ فِى السَّرّاءِ وَالضَّرّاءِ وَالكٰظِمينَ الغَيظَ وَالعافينَ عَنِ النّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ المُحسِنينَ ﴿١٣٤﴾
(134) Those who spend in prosperity and in adversity, for those who curb their anger and those who forgive people. And Allah loves the charitable
This is one of the oft-quoted verses of the Quran in Sura Al-i-Imran. In this ayah and the next, Allah Subhanahu Ta’ala describes the characteristics of those individuals for whom Paradise has been created; and there are two descriptors of this highlighted group used here and elsewhere: Muttaqeen (ayah 133) and Mohsineen (referred above).
Three prominent characteristics have been selected here which share the common threads of mature self-control and a basic love and trust for people. Both psychological theory and individual and social psychological researches include these among the most healthful behaviors associated with the highest forms of mental functioning and optimal physical health. My wish here is to explore the psychological aspects of these traits.
Prosocial behavior, forgiveness, and anger control
Prosocial behavior may be defined as “caring about the welfare and rights of others, feeling concern and empathy for them, and acting in a way that benefits others” [wikipedia]. In Islam prosocial behavior is valid only if it is fueled by pure unselfish interest in others, here represented by one of it’s noblest forms: helping others monetarily.
Forgiveness occurs when we cease to be indignated or angry with someone perceived as having offended in some way. Legally, this involves taking back the criminal charges or forgiving punishment or restitution. Psychosocially, the forgiveness should be internal – from the heart – with restoration of normal relations if it were an acquaintance. It is often accompanied by ‘forgetting’ the past offensiveness of the transgressor.
Anger is that “predominant feeling behaviorally, cognitively, and physiologically when a person makes the conscious choice to take action to immediately stop the threatening behavior of another outside force” (DiGiueseppe & Tafrate, 2006). This definition may be modified to count situations when we decide that the other has behaved unjustly towards us or some other object we love, although we may not necessarily plan to take action.
The three traits are inter-related. Forgiveness involves eliminating anger and the more we nurture anger in us the less prosocial we will be.
Self-actualizers and Fully-functioning individuals
Self-actualization is a concept that was popularized by Abraham Maslow‘s theory of hierarchy of needs. Self-actualizers represent the epitome of psychological functioning and mental health and reach this high stage after having come to terms with all their lower level needs (such as basic needs for physical and emotional survival). Defining self-actualizing as “the desire for self-fulfillment”, “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” he identified several characteristics of self-actualizing individuals. Here is a list:
- An accurate perception of reality. Healthy persons see the world as it is, rather than as distorted by their needs and beliefs. Maslow writes, “The neurotic is not emotionally sick; he is cognitively wrong.” Unhealthy persons fit the world to fit the shapes of their fear, needs, and values.
Apart from the secure self-reliant individuality, another prominent overarching trait evident here is a base of strong positive emotions for others in general. And it is this dimension of self-actualization, which operationally does encompass the specific emotional competencies we are discussing.
Carl Rogers gave a related concept of full-functioning individuals. He believes that “the core of man’s nature is essentially positive” (1961). Fully-functioning individuals represent mental health and maturity because they are open to new experiences, accept their weaknesses, trust themselves and others and are able to live authentically – that is, close to their truest basically good and creative natures. Rogers strongly believed that such kind of maturity can be achieved only in a psychologically healthy atmosphere of trust and dignity.
In today’s culture of self-promotion, blind individualism, and exploitation, it is the noble traits of loving and forgiving others and going out of one’s way to bring a positive difference to others’ lives which can nurture such full-functioning responsible and mature citizens of the world.
The above conclusions are indeed supported by decades of research in individual and social psychologies. I quote below some of the more recent research findings linking these traits with both psychosocial and physical health benefits.
Prosocial behavior research
Prosocial behavior leads to higher positive effect (Piliavin et al., 1981) and can relieve bad moods (Cialdini and Kenrick, 1976). People learn to associate such behavior to social rewards (Kenrick et al., 1979). Overtime, they are linking helping others to positive outcomes whether or not rewards were actually provided. It seems prosocial behavior can become internally rewarding. Prosocial behavior can convey a sense of personal control (Willigen, 1998) and is positively related to self-esteem (Yogev and Ronen, 1982), personal efficacy and confidence (Yates and Youniss, 1996). Those who provide active support to their acquaintances have demonstrably higher longevity, even after taking into account other determiners of mortality rates such as demographic, personal and health characteristics (Brown et al., 2003). Brown et al. suggested that giving support enhances recovery of the cardiovascular system in negative emotions, thus affecting mortality. More socially isolated people benefit most from these effects of prosocial activity, suggesting that the effect is channelized through their increased social integration and interaction. Youth volunteers show lesser risk of drug intake, poor academic performance, or legal entanglements in later life (in Barling and Cooper, 2008 SAGE handbook of OB).
Lawler et al. (2004) found that both current and general levels of forgiveness were related to various health indicators including physical symptoms, medication usage, sleep quality, fatique and somatic complaints. These health benefits could be explained through spirituality, social skills, and reductions in negative affect and stress. Authors concluded that both current and general levels of forgiveness influenced health most strongly by lowering the degree of negative affects experienced.
Positive effects of forgiveness can be explained through elimination of the hazards of unforgiveness. When we don’t forgive others we experience a horde of negative emotions such as resentment, bitterness, hatred, hostility, residual anger, and fear (Worthington et al., 2001). These emotions have strong potential to disturb both mental and physical health. Forgiveness replaces such negative affect with positive love-based emotions. Ultimately, the health effects are channelled through physiological changes.
Forgiveness can modulate our mental health indirectly as well, through its effect on social support, interpersonal functioning, and health behaviors (Temoshok & Chandra, 2000; Worthington et al., 2001).
Anger Control Research
Anger is the root cause of many social problems such as crime, abuse, divorce, as well as myriad of physical and emotional health conditions. The physical and social health of the affected is itself disturbed (Graham-Bermann & Seng, 2005). A survey of around 6,ooo British families (Flouri, E., 2005) found that angry yound adults had more health problems and remained angry and dissatisfied with their life in their adulthood as well. Friedman (1991) had reported that hostile college age students had overweight, high blood pressure and high cholesterol problems, had smoked cigarettes and drank coffee and alcohol compared with the comparison group.
On the other hand, controlling our angry feelings helps us in remaining healthy by engendering in us a sense of being in control. It encourages the positive love-based emotions of trust, acceptance, with a direct reduction in the negative and stress-causing appraisals that others are mean, selfish and exploitative (Tucker-Ladd, 2005). Instead of letting loose in anger, we learn healthier, assertive ways of expressing our negative emotions, increasing our satisfaction with self, life and the world.
May Allah enable us to meaninfully benefit from his guidelines in the remaining Ramadaan and afterwards. Ameen
Note: Primary Sources
Barling, J. & Cooper, C. L. 2008. The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Behavior: Volume 1: Micro Approaches. Sage Publications. Google Books.
Tucker-Ladd, C. E. 2006. Psychological Self-Help. The Self-Help Foundation. http://www.psychologicalselfhelp.org/
Worthington, E. L. 2005. Handbook of Forgiveness. Brunner-Routledge. Google Books.
Other references have been cross-taken from these primary sources.