The George Bailey Effect

One of the things I appreciate about the Christmas season is how conducive it is to grateful reflection. It is a time to think about those people who are most important in our lives – family, friends, neighbors and colleagues – and to be thankful for so many things.

At this time of year, we might also be reminded of an interesting approach to gratitude through a technique dubbed the “George Bailey Effect.” The activity is named after George Bailey, the lead character in the classic seasonal movie, It’s a Beautiful Life.

 In the film, George Bailey has come to a point where he feels that life is no longer worth living. As he contemplates suicide, an angel enters his life and convinces him otherwise. The angel asks George to imagine what the world would have been like had George never been born. Through this process, George realizes that what he thought was a pitiful life was, in fact, a wonderful life. He returns to his family a changed and wiser man.

The George Bailey Effect technique is based on the idea that by mentally undoing positive events from our lives, we initially experience a bit of sadness but also realize that these positive people, events and experiences do, in fact, exist and we appreciate them all the more. It creates a thankfulness for ordinary and mundane parts of our lives that we often take for granted.

Implementing it can be simple. Pick a person, place or event from your life that gives you joy and satisfaction. Write down some things that may have prevented it from happening. Then, as vividly as possible, imagine what your life would have been like had that person, place or event never been part of it.

In one study of the George Bailey effect, couples wrote about ways in which their lives would have been different if they had never met their spouse. This exercise had a greater impact on their happiness than when they reflected on what they really appreciated about their husband or wife.

Doing this exercise regularly can contribute to it becoming an habitual way that we process things, creating a greater sense of gratitude and appreciation for those things that may otherwise feel mundane or insignificant.


Do yourself a favor and give the George Bailey technique a try. It could be the best gift you give yourself this holiday season.

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