Clarence Was Right: A Little Mystery Makes Us Happier

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the American film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The film lapsed into the public domain in the United States due to the failure of National Telefilm Associates, the last copyright owner, to renew. See film article for details. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know how the movie ends, yet I watch it every year. At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, I light up when Clarence Odbody earns his angel’s wings by saving George Bailey. My heart opens when Clarence saves George; not by imagining live events, but by re-imagining what might have happened if George wasn’t there.  Now I know the secret to the happy ending.  Clarence was right: a little mystery makes me happier. It can make you happier, too.

The George Bailey Effect

Timothy D. Wilson explains The George Bailey Effect in Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.  Wilson explains that clarity helps us adapt to life events by providing the closure necessary to move on.  My post How Happy People Deal With Bad Stuff describes how this works in dealing with negative events.  Clarity reduces the impact of an event; mystery gives it power.  This has the same effect with positive events in our lives. We come to understand them, accept them, and incorporate them into our lives. The same process that helps us move on from bad events encourages us to take the good ones for granted.

Wilson suggests that The George Bailey Effect adds to our happiness through the “pleasures of uncertainty.” His research suggests how it works. Strangers were handed cards with dollar bills attached.  One group received cards that simply said  “The Smile Society -Promote Random Acts of Kindness.”  A second group received cards with detailed explanations about why the group was handing out dollars. Even though it was the same gift handed out in the same random order, group members who received the “mystery” cards reported being happier with the gift.  Their happiness was boosted by the time spent working on the puzzle: Who is the Smile Society? Why was I selected? Does this happen to everyone? These questions caused members to invest more energy on the positive event, which made it bigger. The second group had the fleeting moment of being surprised, but nothing else forced them to savor it.  With nothing left to wonder about, the event got smaller.

The “pleasure of uncertainty” explains why practices like keeping gratitude journals have mixed long-term results on happiness levels. The paradox is that the more we think about the good things in our lives, the more clarity we have about them. The more clarity we have, the less power these events have to impact our happiness.

Power Up Gratitude

Wilson suggests a method to power up our gratitude. Instead of writing what we are grateful about, write about what our life would be without this blessing. For example, write about the day as if you didn’t have your health. Write about the consequences if you didn’t have a job. Write about your life if you didn’t have your beloved partner, friend or child. Put The George Bailey Effect to work in your gratitude practice and see if it makes a difference.

Be your own Clarence this season. Make your blessings special again by imaging your existence without them. Use a little mystery to deepen appreciation of your wonderful life.


Wilson, T.D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown & Company.

4 thoughts on “Clarence Was Right: A Little Mystery Makes Us Happier

  1. Wilson’s power up gratitude technique is so similar to a cognitive reframing technique that we learned in coaching elective to uncover what is it that coachees value. Very interesting to see its application in a context of self-discovery. Really like the post.

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