The George Bailey Effect: How to Be More Grateful

This is a short blog about how to be more grateful. We are all guilty of the George Bailey Effect, where we think that whatever good thing happens to us is because of what others did or didn’t do for us. This leads people into feeling entitled and self-centered instead of being thankful and humble.

The “gratefulness” is a feeling that George Bailey has when he realizes how much his life has been blessed. He’s able to get through the tough times and see what he has going for him.

George Bailey in "It's a wonderful life" movie while hugging his family.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to be less cynical lately. Not that there’s anything wrong with a fair dose of cynicism; it’s just that I have a propensity to overdo it to the point of bitterness, pessimism, and inactivity. Because I’m a bit of a downer, I’m always fighting my inner Oscar the Grouch/Eeyore.

Starting a thankfulness notebook is one technique I’ve heard that is intended to help you overcome pessimism. You’ve most likely heard of these things, and some of you may have even tried them. There’s not a whole lot to it. You keep a gratitude journal and write down what you’re thankful for every day. You’re meant to feel better and more hopeful about life if you list your blessings like this every day.

So it is said.

I’ve tried thankfulness notebooks a few times in my life, but I’ve never received much benefit from them. Which is really aggravating since I have no idea why. “Man, I’ve got so much going for me,” I thought as I flick through pages and pages of things I’m grateful for. The world is fantastic! Why am I not happier or less pessimistic about life?” Furthermore, I know some others who claim that keeping a gratitude diary has helped them become happy, thus my inability to do so by recording my blessings stings even more. I began to believe that my excessive skepticism had damaged my spirit to the point that I would never be able to feel joyful or optimistic again. This, of course, made me more skeptical, pessimistic, and bitter…


The Extraordinary Became Ordinary

I was reading Dr. Timothy D. Wilson’s book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change a few months ago. (It’s a fantastic book that I strongly suggest.) One little vignette in particular caught my eye because it addressed my old foe: the gratitude notebook.

The efficacy of gratitude diaries has been studied by psychologists, with varied findings. They live up to the hype for certain folks. It is true that writing down what people are grateful for makes them happy. However, studies discovered that gratitude notebooks had little impact on happiness for many individuals (including me).

The “pleasure paradox,” according to researchers, is to blame for gratitude journals’ ineffectiveness. According to studies, when there is a sense of ambiguity and mystery around an event, we enjoy it more and for longer. It’s why discovering a $5 bill in the street gutter might improve your day, while receiving a long-awaited $1,000 rise can simply make you shrug. We’ve had a couple of months to consider and comprehend receiving a raise, so we’ve become acclimated to the notion and don’t get much of a raise. As Ian McEwan described it in his book Enduring Love, “the spectacular becomes mundane.” “People want to comprehend the beautiful things in life so that they may experience them again,” Dr. Wilson explains, “but by doing so, they lessen the pleasure they obtain from these occurrences.”


This pleasure paradox, according to Dr. Wilson, sabotages the effectiveness of gratitude journals for some people because “people typically spend a lot of time thinking about the good things that have happened to them, and thus by the time they sit down to write about these events they have already achieved an understanding of them and robbed them of some of their mystery by the time they sit down to write about them.”

So it’s not because I’m a heartless Scrooge because I can’t feel joyful from my thanksgiving journal(s). I’ve become so used to having the things I’m thankful for that they no longer carry any ambiguity in my mind, yet research shows that uncertainty is what makes life’s occurrences and gifts more joyous and delightful.

Okay. Now that I know why gratitude diaries don’t work, is there anything else I can do to feel more thankful for the things in my life, and therefore a little less cynical?

Yes, thankfully. There’s a simple way to getting past the pleasure paradox and feeling happier, less depressed, and more appreciative for the people and things you have. It’s known as “The George Bailey Technique” by psychologists.

George Bailey’s World Without Him

George Bailey crying in "It's a wonderful life" movie.

“George, you’ve been given a wonderful gift: the opportunity to glimpse how the world would be without you.” – Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody

George Bailey, the hero of the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. If you remember, George Bailey is a down-to-earth person whose goals are always dashed since he’s always looking out for his friends and family. George has desired to travel to foreign locations and create large structures such as skyscrapers and airstrips since he was knee height to a grasshopper. Just when he seems to be on his way to making his ambitions a reality, a catastrophe forces him to put them on hold in order to care for others.

When George’s absent-minded uncle misplaces $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s cash money on Christmas Eve, everything come to a head. If the money is lost, the Bailey Building and Loan will go bankrupt, and George would face criminal charges. George, at the end of his tether, commits himself so that his family may collect his $15,000 life insurance policy and pay off his $8,000 debt.

Clarence Odbody, George’s guardian angel, dives into the river and appears to die just before George leaps from a bridge to his chilly, watery death. George, being the kind man that he is, comes to Clarence’s rescue. Clarence attempts to convince George out of killing himself as they’re drying off. Clarence finds a means to persuade George not to commit suicide when he desperately wishes he’d never been born. Clarence is able to show him what his family and Bedford Falls would have been like if George Bailey had never lived, thanks to his heavenly abilities.


It’s a pit of hell.

George’s younger brother dies because George was not there to rescue him, Bedford Falls becomes sleazy Pottersville, his mother becomes a bitter widow, and people live in slum flats rather than the magnificent mansions George’s Building and Loan sponsored. Worse worse, George’s wife is an elderly maid, and none of their lovely children exist.

George, as you would expect, sees the light and begs to live once again. With his desire accomplished, he rushes joyfully around the streets, greeting everyone with “Merry Christmas!” When he returns home, the police have a warrant out for his arrest, but George seems unconcerned. He only wants to embrace and kiss his children. Soon after, his wife appears, followed by what seems to be the whole town. George’s old boyhood buddy Sam Wainwright (hee haw!) loans George $25,000, and George’s military hero brother declares George “the wealthiest man in Bedford Falls.”

George discovers a copy of Tom Sawyer that Clarence had been carrying about with the following inscription: “Dear George: Remember no guy is a failure who has friends.” Thank you for the wings, too! Clarence, I love you.”

This is the point at which George understands what a lovely life he has. He gains a better understanding and respect for the actual richness of his benefits by witnessing what the world would be like without him.

In the Real World, George Bailey’s Technique

George Bailey experiences what the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis.

George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life experiences anagnorisis, or the abrupt understanding of reality — of where things actually stand and one’s genuine connection to others, as the ancient Greeks described it. A few interested psychiatrists questioned whether actual individuals may have anagnorisis in the same way as George Bailey did when he imagined a world without him. As a result, they conducted certain tests.

In one experiment, researchers generated two groups of participants at random. They invited one group to create a narrative about how they met their significant other, while the other was asked to “George Bailey” their significant other out of their life by creating a narrative about how they may not have ended up with them in the first place.

What’s the end result?

People who were assigned the George Bailey condition, which required them to write about how they may not have met their love partner, were happier in their relationships than those who just wrote about how they met their spouse.

The pleasure paradox, according to Dr. Wilson, explains the disparities in outcomes. “Having certainly recounted that tale numerous times, hearing it again had minimal effect,” the individuals who wrote about how they met their significant other said. The exercise, however, “made [their relationship] appear unexpected and exceptional again, and maybe a bit mysterious — the precise circumstances that extend the joy we receive from the wonderful things in life” for those who had to picture their wives and husbands out of their lives.


Encouraged by this research, I tried the George Bailey approach by imagining how I may have never met Kate and what my life would be like if she hadn’t come into my life. It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole picturing all the possibilities, yet thinking about my life without Kate makes me even more thankful for her. I used the George Bailey method on other aspects of my life, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t make me feel better about myself and a whole lot less cynical.

Incorporate the George Bailey Method into Your Life

If you’re anything like me and wish to minimize your cynicism and pessimism, I dare you to try the George Bailey Technique. What do you have to lose but maybe 20 minutes of your time? Choose one person, location, or event in your life that provides you joy and pleasure, and write down the different ways it could not have occurred in your notebook. Then write out what your life would be like without that person/place/event.

As you do this technique on a daily basis, you’ll find yourself feeling more appreciative for your blessings and more hopeful and positive about life in general. It certainly has for me.

Gentlemen, here’s to a happier and less cynical Christmas.



Frequently Asked Questions

What is the George Bailey effect?

A: The George Bailey effect is a psychological phenomenon where individuals are more likely to donate money when they believe that the cause has been given a name similar to their own.

What happens to Georges uncle in a world without George?

A: Georges uncle would be alive and well.

What does George Bailey learn?

A: George learns a lesson of trust, perseverance and generosity.

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