A few years ago, I bought a gratitude journal.
This was right around the time that gratitude lists were becoming popular, so I jumped on the bandwagon. I started every day by listing three things I’m grateful for. It would look something like this:
I’m grateful for my wife.
I’m grateful for our dogs.
I’m grateful that I live in an amazing city.
Things were off to a great start. Listing what I was grateful for brought a smile to my face each morning and helped me start the day on a positive note.
But within a week, the effect began to taper off. The boost in my well-being decreased each day. I began to go through the motions of counting my blessings, but it had no noticeable impact on my life. The items on my list quickly became the new norm (social psychologists would say that I “adapted” to them). The exercise lost its meaning, so I abandoned it.
It turns out that I’m not alone. The research is mixed on whether expression of gratitude boosts happiness. At least four studies found that expressing gratitude for positive events had zero effect on the participants’ well-being.
Does that mean we should give up on gratitude?
Not so fast.
The researchers in the above study applied a contrarian approach to gratitude. Instead of asking participants to reflect on the presence of a positive event (“I’m grateful I met my wife”), they asked participants to reflect on its absence (“What if I had never met my wife?”). In other words, they asked participants to undo positive events and picture a counterfactual world where that positive event had never happened.
The results were striking. People who compared themselves to an alternative, worse-off version of their current-self reported more positive states.
Researchers called this the George Bailey effect, in homage to the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In the movie, Bailey is on the verge of committing suicide on Christmas Eve when a guardian angel arrives to rescue him. Rather than asking Bailey to count his blessings, the angel does the opposite. He takes Bailey on a tour of a counterfactual world—a world in which Bailey hadn’t been born. This tour shows Bailey all the people he has touched and makes him realize how precious his current life is.
This cinematic insight captures a powerful psychological dynamic: Subtraction of positive events counteracts our tendency to take them for granted.
I tried to create the George Bailey effect in my own life. For example, instead of expressing gratitude for my wife, I thought about all the ways we might never have met. If I hadn’t been assigned to a particular floor in a particular dorm in college, I wouldn’t have met my college best friend, Joe. If I hadn’t met Joe, his wife wouldn’t have bought him a roundtrip ticket as a birthday present to visit me in Chicago in 2011. If Joe hadn’t visited me, we wouldn’t have gone to see an (awful) 90s cover band at a bar called Castaways. If I hadn’t gone to Castaways, I wouldn’t have bumped into the woman whom I would later marry.
I next thought about all the ways that my life would be dramatically worse if I hadn’t met my wife—the joys, the laughter, the companionship, the adventures I would have been denied.
This exercise made me realize—in a far more powerful way than before—how fortunate I am that life unfolded as it did.
So this Thanksgiving, create the George Bailey effect in your life.
Instead of counting your blessings, subtract them.
The results will surprise you.