The George Bailey Effect: This Powerful Storytelling Technique Is A Wonderful Thing

When It’s a Wonderful Life — Frank Capra’s film about a suicidal man whose guardian angel shows him what the world would be like had he never been born — came out in 1946, audiences were lukewarm. Reviews were mixed. The New Yorker hated it and earnings barely covered what it cost to make. It wasn’t until regular airings around Christmastime on TV fostered a dedicated audience that critics took a 2nd look, nearly four decades after it came out. Now we can hardly imagine the holiday season without the story of George Bailey, whose lifetime of dreams delayed for the sake of others and then denied by circumstance leads him to consider suicide. What saves him is not a material change in the landscape of his life, but seeing with new eyes that everything he is and has given to the world makes him, as his brother says in an emotional toast at the very end of the story, “the richest man in town.”

Like George Bailey, anyone of us is vulnerable to loss, injustice, dreams crushed, hopes dashed, and circumstances beyond our control. The struggles of life can wear us down, our perspective can shift to where the possibility of success is simply not worth the pain. And there are times that depression, anxiety and the sense of futility that long-term adversity induces can overwhelm our belief that we ourselves have worth. To suggest “it’s a wonderful life” to a person facing unemployment or loss of a loved one is insensitive and callous, but there is something researchers call the “George Bailey Effect”- a self-empowerment technique similar to what the angel does for the character George Bailey in the film — that yields an upsurge in positivity and psychological strength. The effect occurs through telling a piece of our life story through the lens of “what if” a specific positive event or relationship had never happened, e.g. “What if I had never met my partner? What if I had never gone back to school? “What if I had left my relationship instead of working on it?” The research suggests that “thinking about the ways in which an event might not have occurred can make that event seem more surprising.” Because surprising events heighten emotion — in this case, positive emotion — this practice is linked to improved mental states and the ability to choose to shift into a positive mindset.

There are other variations of the “wonderful life” strategy, and it is needs to applied with support and structure or it can go awry. “‘What if’ thinking is always a bit tricky,” writes Wray Herbert on the Scientific American blog. “Too much focus on ‘what might have been’ can mire us in regrets and feelings of powerlessness or keep us from savoring our good fortunes. But some scientists are beginning to think that imagining an alternative reality might have ironic and tonic effects, and indeed might be a practical tool for strengthening commitment to country, workplace and relationships.”

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published results showing that this exercise significantly increased participants’ level of positive emotion — much more than the participants who were asked to write the story about how they met their life partner. Another study — published online in Psychological Science — asked participants to focus on imagining “what if” specific events in their company’s or their country’s history had not occurred. Imagining their group’s story minus specific stressful events that had threatened the group was found to deepen the participants’ level of commitment to the group.

We applied these findings in a “Navigating Transitions” workshop at Lifestage, using an adaptation of this exercise with people going through unexpected and dramatic change. Participants were instructed to write a story about the painful change they are going through, bringing in details about the events, people and internal experience that had significant impact, using the 5-beat story structure, the best way to create emotional stakes and carry listeners along an emotional arc led by the storyteller. An example:

Set-Up: For 18 years I worked for a national company to which I had contributed enormously in helping grow the local customer base and develop the onsite organization. I was looking forward to another 7 years of full time work before cashing in the generous retirement benefit and reaping the harvest of a long, stable career.

Inciting Incident: In September 2008 the company abruptly and without much explanation tells me my team is dismantled and I am out. Fired. I can collect unemployment but no severance package. I discover that the retirement plan was invested in a company that was bankrupt, and other financial issues with the company that no one knew about. I am out, with 2 kids entering college and in my mid-fifties. I never saw this coming, and feel more uncertainty and fear than when I had trouble finding a job after college.

Rising Action. I apply for every job I can find but unemployment is at its highest in 15 years. No one is hiring. I am demoralized, enraged, completely thrown a curve to not only my life but my sense of self. I was always able to provide for my family. Now I live in a beautiful house on Long Island that is not worth what I paid for it because of the housing boom and bust. Grief comes and goes, but self-doubt and anxiety is constant.

Climax: After months of depression and near-despair, I agree to do a project for a company that directly competes with my old employer as an independent contractor. I work from home, riddled with anxiety. I think things like “This isn’t going to pay enough to cover the next house payment. Why am I wasting my time?” But I have no other work so I complete that project. The company gives me some consulting work. I take it. I like working from home.

Resolution: I still don’t feel secure about this but I keep saying yes to more work. I do have enough different projects now that I put in a full work week, and can build this up as much as I want to.

After sharing the story, we asked participants to re-imagine the story from the perspective of “what if, e.g. “what if I did not get laid off?” Using the same structure, this version of the story ignited a narrative that led to a conscious shift in self-awareness. “If I had not been laid off, I would never know what its like to design my own hours — and that I love designing my own workday. I would never have explored defining myself in my work role, and would still be dependent on a system I thought would take care of me that turned out to be shaky to its foundations. I never wanted to be a free-lancer and loved the security of a large company. So if I had never been laid off I would not have as much confidence in my own abilities as I do with independent work. I have to hustle now. There is no certainty. But there is excitement and I know that I can create possibilities for myself.”

Telling the story in the 5-beat structure is a way to look at events as well as internal thoughts and feelings as a multi-dimensional narrative that has stakes and creative tension. Studies show that storytelling promotes important life and communication skills — careful observation, perspective-taking, and interpretation. By focusing on “what if” the transitional event had not occurred, participants can articulate and express not only what was lost, but also the transformative aspects of their unexpected life situation — the new people they had met, the talents unearthed, and inner strength discovered in the process of getting through a rough experience.

Just as George Bailey’s darkest moments are the opening to seeing his life in a new light, it is just this co-mingling of light and dark in the same experiences that render them rich with meaning. To a recovering addict, the lowest low is often the turning point toward an entirely new and wonderful path. The torturous ending of one phase of life contains seeds of possibilities for the next. We can use this knowledge — and these techniques — to have more energy and creativity to rise above difficult circumstances and focus on the richness within ourselves and in our relationships. “Unlike the movie It’s a Wonderful Life,” write the researchers who gave us the “George Bailey” effect “it is not necessary for an angel to show us what the world would look like if we had never been born. Instead, spending a few minutes mentally subtracting a good thing from our lives can make us feel better.” And If the difference we make to others in this world — if depth of relationship and appreciation for what we contribute could be measured in dollars — many of us would feel very rich indeed.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is an Approved Provider of Continuing Education for social workers in NYS, provider #0270, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a storytelling show that features true stories — with a twist — performed in NY and around the country.