By Angela Cataldo, Student at Clemson University and BodiMojo Blog Contributor
Last month, I ventured to Canada for a new—and intimidating—experience. Alright, maybe the International Positive Psychology Conference isn’t that scary, but to a 21-year-old psych major, this was the big league! I was excited for the long days of mindfulness sessions, potential networking opportunities, and (bonus!) all the fun, free merchandise.
The nerves started kicking in on day one. Have you ever felt “out of your element”? Like everyone can tell that you’re feeling insecure? When I stepped into a seminar full of people with much more experience than me, I certainly felt that way. Little did I know, my experience was already being shaped by the topic of a session that I would soon attend.
Turning points, framing, and affirming
During the conference, Stanford professor Geoffrey Cohen captivated the audience’s attention, including mine, as he presented his research about the importance of turning points. In this context, a turning point is when a potential problem is triggered into becoming a motivational and ultimately beneficial process. He suggests that we have the ability to use turning points to bring significant and long-lasting positivity into the lives of others. By creating these moments in the right place and time, we can generate powerful, persistent influences. Being part of a social experience—rather than gaining new information or having a personal epiphany—tends to trigger turning points. For instance, being comforted by a friend during a stressful time can change your mindset on the difficult situation and put you on a more positive trajectory where you learn and grow from the experience.
“The picture can look very different simply by changing the picture frame.” This is the analogy Cohen used as he presented another concept, the idea of framing, or attempting to change the context in which we present a subject. For example, Cohen found that giving middle school students encouraging notes along with corrections on their essays resulted in more academic success for years to come. You can use framing in your own life by reminding someone of their strengths or telling them you believe in them when giving advice or constructive criticism.
Cohen also presented the concept of affirming, or reassuring others before or during a difficult situation to make it go more smoothly. For example, we might make a list of things we are grateful for before an exam or repeat a mantra of empowerment before stepping into an important interview. Affirming stops us in our tracks and allows us to be mindful. Affirming turns a ‘typical’ moment, such as taking a test or stressing about an interview, into an identity-defining moment in which we reflect on our values. We are redirecting our journey to be a more joyful, healthy, and grateful path. The benefits of practicing mindfulness are endless, and the practice of affirming brings these benefits into our daily lives when we need them the most.
Any effective intervention or change depends on timing and context; conditionality is key! When we embed framing and affirming messages of positivity into our daily lives and the lives of those we care about, we can create these essential turning points.
After Cohen’s seminar, I reflected on this information and almost let it slip my mind—before I realized that I had a turning point that very morning!
Upon arriving in Canada, I had expressed both my excitement and my nervousness to the psychology professor who had brought me along as her research assistant. She gave me a big smile, describing how kind and friendly everyone is, and how fantastic I would be at presenting our current research. My nerves were set at ease as I entered the conference hall with the newfound context that this was a welcoming environment where my curiosity and excitement to learn would be well received. Had I remained feeling intimidated and shy, perhaps I would have held back from meeting amazing colleagues and asking questions when I needed help. The domino effect of a turning point can be momentous.
Cohen was right—it is social experiences that create turning points. A word of kindness and encouragement given at the opportune time can manifest into a long-lasting and rippling effect.