It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

It’s not every day that the premise for a Hollywood film gets turned into a psychology experiment designed to make you feel more satisfied with your life.

But that’s what has happened to Frank Capra’s perennial schmaltz-fest It’s A Wonderful Life.

For those of you who have managed somehow to miss the Christmas repeats, I’ll save you going to Wikipedia:

The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.

Aw. Sweet.

But the foundation for a psychological therapy? I don’t know about that.

Nevertheless, in 2008 a team led by Minkyung Koo of the University of Virginia launched a series of experiments designed to simulate the imaginary ‘subtraction’ that Clarence uses to lift the spirits of our suicidal hero.

And the results were… quite good. The effects will hardly threaten sales of Prozac, but imagining a what-if scenario where an event you’re grateful for never happened might make you a little more appreciative of what you do have, and a little happier as a result.

The precise instructions were:

We asked participants to describe an event for which they felt grateful from one of seven categories: education, health, safety/security, possessions, break/vacation/weekends/holidays, act of kindness/support from others, achievement/performance.

Note: The study does not ask them to describe a positive event, but an event for which they felt grateful. These categories were selected as generating suitable events for the participants – feel free to pick something else.

Participants in the absence condition were then asked, “Please describe ways that this thing or event might never have happened or might never have been part of your life,” and “Please describe ways in which it is SURPRISING that this thing or event is part of your life.”

The participants in this ‘absence condition’ saw significantly greater gains in positive affect ( = good vibes) compared to control groups.

What’s interesting is how this ‘George Bailey’ effect might work. The authors speculate that it’s because the subjects had previously adapted to the presence of the gratitude-inducing event in their lives – so the only way to feel good about it again is to re-imagine their life without the event.

None of us has a guardian angel like Clarence; and we can never predict or comprehend the ripples of positivity that spread from our actions. But perhaps we can take a moment every day to vividly imagine our lives without some boon, and feel once again a measure of the gratitude we should.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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