Fortune Cookie Wisdom

Optimism has been shown to be an important part of good health and wellness. Without such sparks of inspiration or encouragement we can tend to forget that life can be more than just the daily grind of work and responsibility.
10/27/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

When was the last time you cracked open a fortune cookie? Those little slips of paper filled with uplifting, motivational messages always seem to brighten our days. Snippets of inspiration such as, "You will be sharing great news with all those you love," "Be patient -- success is near," or "Happiness awaits you" get posted on our bulletin boards as a reminder of possibilities yet to come. These little harbingers of imagined visions or destiny spur us on and make us think, "What if it really could happen?"

By taking that one minute out of your day to pause and reflect on the fortune cookie's positive message, you might suddenly stop and realize: This may be the first affirmative message you've received all day! Amidst the hustle and bustle of looming deadlines, grid-locked traffic and disgruntled coworkers, somewhere from the vastness of space and time this little paper has provided a ray of light and a reminder of those filed-away visions and dreams.

But this seemingly-random and well-meaning message invites an even deeper question: What are we getting from these little fortune cookies that we are not getting in our day-to-day encounters that may be essential to our spirit, our sense of well-being and even our health? When was the last time you got this kind of a message from your friend, or from your partner? Positive reinforcement can relay a possibility of hopeful outcomes or imagined dreams being fulfilled.

Optimism has been shown to be an important part of good health and wellness. Without such sparks of inspiration or encouragement we can tend to forget that life can be more than just the daily grind of work and responsibility. We can lose our optimism, our wide-eyed wonder at things that inspire us, lift our spirit or open our hearts.

There is something significant to this power of suggestion and optimism. Reasonable optimism has been shown to impact nearly every aspect of our lives -- from living longer, to doing well on a test, to enjoying success in our work. Likewise, pessimism has been shown to contribute to feelings of depression, illness and withdrawal from the world.

Research has also shown a correlation between committed, secure love and being happy. In one study, romance followed by a deeper, committed-to-the-love relationship led to more happiness in both short and long-term relationships. In comparison, non-committed, passion-focused relationships tended to fizzle out in the short term and did not impart the sense of well-being and fulfillment that the committed relationships do.

As human beings, we instinctively look toward others to reinforce our expectations for ourselves. If were receive positive messages from others, we thrive. If we are communicated negative messages we most often do not. This is called the "Pygmalion effect." The Pygmalion effect works both ways: If you were conditioned as a child to reach toward a high set of expectations, you would tend to meet those achievements. If you were held to a lower standard, you would not try as hard. We often become what are told we will become. When others expect less of us, we generally expect less of ourselves.

The Pygmalion effect isn't set in stone. A little encouragement and higher expectations can yield fantastic results. This may be why we enjoy messages from the fortune cookies -- we are looking for positive reflections and hopeful possibilities. Or perhaps it is because, on some level, the fortune cookie messages reaffirm what we've always believed: that we really can succeed, be loved, and feel wanted. Have you ever seen a fortune cookie that says, "You will do just well enough to get by?"

The pursuit of happiness appears to have genetic a foundation as well. Research suggests a healthy genetic mix includes being conscientious and sociable, as these positive experiences build up a reservoir of resilience that our body can turn to in challenging and stressful times. Having a wide circle of friends and intimates can do wonders for our levels of satisfaction with life in general.

We can all become someone's fortune cookie message by bringing hopeful messages to those around us. We can offer words of encouragement to a coworker struggling with a tough project. We can give our spouse-partner a shoulder rub and tell them how much we appreciate having them in your life. We can share moments with each of our children and let them know how great their latest efforts in school are or how much you enjoyed the dinner they prepared, or how well they did at soccer practice. We can choose to be a person who communicates just how special and valued others are in our life, and reinforce their deeply-held hopes that good things will come soon. By sharing meaningful communication and hopeful affirmation with those we love, our words become a soothing balm that makes the bitter stings of the bad news and turmoil in our everyday lives not so disappointing.

For more by Georgianna Donadio, M.Sc., Ph.D., D.C., click here.

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