Home All Walking the Talk: Individual or Collective?

Walking the Talk: Individual or Collective?

written by Louis Alloro 29 October 2009

Louis Alloro, M.Ed., MAPP '08, is a cofounder of a 6-month Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology Program, Fellow at the Center for Advancement of Wellbeing at George Mason University, and founder of SOMO Leadership Labs, a community intervention. Web site. Full Bio.

Articles by Louis are here.

Walking the Talk

Walking the Talk

One of the main principles of social psychology and positive psychology is that we are social creatures.  On the other hand, I see a big discrepancy when I hear of research by Dutch organizational researcher Geert Hofstede on the immense prevalence of individualism in America and in many other cultures.  How can we be both social creatures and individualistic at the same time?

This weekend, I was at the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Alumni Summit.  There are now four years of about 30-40 alumni per year and an additional 45 new students this year.  I am filled with joy when I reconnect with this pod, a home base that reawakens me to my vision and calling. I feel such gratitude for these people and for our program. I am more whole because of it. I am invested. I show up.

But for me, “showing up” is getting more and more difficult, as if I see (and feel) a collision point between thinking and doing. This weekend – partly due to the new research presented and partly due my own thinking as a coach about how to integrate social interactions into our individualistic lives – I felt that collision point. To me, connecting with past alumni and high-caliber researchers is a joy: MAPP is delicious.  At the same time, this weekend, I coined a new term of satiety: mappapacity. Mappapacity (n.) is the point at which I’m full, when I sense that research may not be corresponding with our applications of it, collectively.  This got me thinking about something I’ve been considering on my blog, do we really connect with each other? And even more so, do the people who best know about the importance of connectedness – the MAPP alumni – do we really go beyond our own individual shells to connect? This is something that we feel – something that may not quite be quantifiable.

Understanding Group Culture

Christopher Peterson presented research on the cultural values of communities by Dutch organizational researcher Geert Hofstede (homepage).  Hofstede studied employees in many countries, and rated the cultures on many dimensions, such as collectivism/individualism, power, long-term/short-term orientation, masculinity/femininity, and uncertainty/avoidance indices. He found interesting differences between eastern and western traditions. Western traditions are much more individualistic.

There’s a cultural norm that even we, the MAPP alumni, and a most positive bunch, live into.  Not all of us in the MAPP community remember to act as a community all the time, myself included. This is why we need each other to stay accountable to the mindfulness required in being a flourishing organization. For the future of positive psychology, it is necessary we take this on wholeheartedly.

“Think about what happens when strength meets strength,” David Cooperrider is fond of saying, because there’s no telling how possibilities open up in nonzero sum games.  In fact, Cooperrider’s very framework, Appreciative Inquiry, is grounded in Social-Construction Theory, the idea that reality is whatever the collective creates it to be. The creation of reality is based in language, the words we use to judge, classify, and divide, e.g. “Let there be light.” Dialogue is born in unison, harmony and agreement.  Truth and meaning come down to the words we use to classify our experience. Language is grounded in sensory stimulation, activating neurotransmissions of energy—feelings throughout our bodies, both good and bad.

I challenge us to be more mindful of how we use our language.  We can say, “How would we like to spend the afternoon?” rather than “How do you want to spend the afternoon?  How do I?”  We can listen more closely, go beyond the superficial, and create our reality this way.  I don’t always pay as much attention as I would like to.  I don’t always reach out and connect.  I would like to.   The time is now that we consider our responsibility in using this brilliant science in artistic and creative ways, as we really consider how our organization can truly flourish – and when.

Author’s Note:  If you’re interested in a super-easy positive intervention that could help you become more mindful of language, arguably necessary in creating positive cultures, check out my blog by clicking here.

Desert courtesy of Hamed Saber.

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Jeremy McCarthy 29 October 2009 - 3:33 pm

Thanks Louis. This is a great article with lots to think about. I missed most of the summit but could immediately identify with your concept of mappapacity. Hard to make that important leap from learning to doing. I also like your distinction on connectedness. I’ve always felt like the strength of romantic relationships can be somewhat measured by how many of the conversations are based on “you/me” vs. “we”.

SomaNstory 29 October 2009 - 8:59 pm


I enjoyed your article. I would say language is a start. The other context is one’s way of being situated in a more collective mindset and way of engaging. If there’s a value of being more collectively oriented then there’s an extentsion to language, action and other acts of engagement.


Louis Alloro 30 October 2009 - 8:59 am

Jeremy, Thank you for your note. Glad you’re thinking. The more of us thinking about the learning/doing disconnect, the faster it may be diminished. Then again, there’s the tendency to over think and under live, so maybe we should be living it, not thinking about it?

You’re spot on with the you/me vs. we. I wonder what Shelly Gable would say.


Louis Alloro 30 October 2009 - 9:03 am

Hi T – Thanks for reading. I agree with you about ‘mindset.’ Love Carol Dweck’s work on fixed vs. growth. Could the argument be made that a growth mindset is more collective in nature – and that a fixed one is more individualist?


Jeff 30 October 2009 - 12:17 pm

Louis & friends,

Give me the hard numbers. What percent happier are you after years of PPND? The disconnect is real and glaring. Seligman stated that he wanted to increase the raw tonnage of human happiness. So far, no good. It has not happened. I don’t believe that societies have embraced happiness over other human needs such as productivity. I want it to happen, but I can’t believe that it *has* happened. If reading PPND makes you happier, I should be a heck of a lot happier since its inception. I take the tests like on happier.com (which I am now unsubscribed) and I’ve been flatlining. The biggest impacts have been circumstantial…new better paying job and good spousal relations make for happier days for me personally. When the relationship or the job is tanking so is my mood. So I haven’t seen Lyubomirsky’s mere 10 percent in circumstances. I think in my situation that is a falsehood.

In short, I would like to see the numbers on how much happier each article makes readers who a) just read the article but do not actively apply it in a formal sense b) who sort of integrate the advice into their lives on a whimsical basis and c) those who are gung ho about putting the advice into practice.

With pre and post testing maybe we could find out the real results from PPND and happiness advice.

Senia 30 October 2009 - 1:26 pm


That’s an interesting comment. Perhaps we could do a brief survey after each article:
a) Did you apply the research in this article? (y/n)
b) To what degree did it help you? (1-7 no help to a great deal of help)

We have this reader-response survey here (http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=FaelbStG_2f4tcNn4tce4WPw_3d_3d), and are still gathering responses.

This is very interesting for me to think about. What other ways can we measure impact, progress, etc.? How do people change in productivity, happiness, and resilience after reading these research-based tips?


WJ 30 October 2009 - 3:40 pm

Louise and Jeff, my suspicion is that the MAPP course doesn’t actually make people happier – it’s the community of like minded people. That’s why the MAPP alumni is so strong.

The irony is that relationships weren’t considered a pillar in the original PP construct. I wonder if this is because Seligman doesn’t believe relationships are important?

Of course another perspective might by that the MAPP course is missing some fundamentals eg mindfulness

Stephen Mugford 30 October 2009 - 4:27 pm


I really liked your piece on PPND which looked at ‘mappacity’. Lots of worthwhile thoughts there. Thx. ?

At the same time, ‘mappacity’ kind of reminded me of the old Zen parable, which I expect you know:

Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away.
One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way.
The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”
The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

I’m not sure what the connection is (if there is one) but since it popped into my head immediately and since I do sometimes hit some intuitive links, I thought I’d share it with you for whatever its worth.:)

Best wishes

Stephen Mugford

Louis Alloro 30 October 2009 - 5:33 pm

Hey Jeff – Thanks for the interesting comment as Senia says. I think thought that you make a good point: it’s not just reading PPND or signing up for “happiness” sites that will make you happier. There’s another step involved, *the doing*, that needs to exist on a different dimension than the thinking. Like language and science itself, happiness is, too, cocreated in relationship. This relationship starts with the one we have with ourselves first, and then with others in our lives. This takes work!

Not sure what you mean about Lyubomirsky’s 10% not working for you. Can you say more? You may see that the bigger paying job and temporary betterment with your spouse may provide quick wins and pleasure – but ultimately, in the long run, are they sustainable unless grounded in real transparency and authenticity? Only you will know. Not sure that is really quantifiable.

With gung-ho-edness,

Louis Alloro 30 October 2009 - 5:40 pm


To your points I’d have to say that the good life is in large part subjective. Did we not value good relationships until Marty added it to his theory? Hardly. What I try to capture in “mappapacity” is part the callous nature with which some people follow positive psychology or any other field or discipline for that matter.

We are all both objects and participants in life — observers and doers. My hypothesis: the world will be a much better place if people take the power of our active agencies. Imagine the possibilities. Is mindfulness important? You betcha!

Bon weekend,

WJ 31 October 2009 - 12:10 am

Hi Louis – so how would you rate meditation as PP intervention?

Louis Alloro 31 October 2009 - 4:04 pm


Thank you for sharing the Zen parable. Interesting how the “important man” did not see that his cup was full until the Zen master made the figurative real literal. Reminds me of my own life sometimes. With such limited attention, there’s so much I fail to see. Emptiness is key, I think – creating (psychological) space to allow more or what I want in life–goodness, love, hope, etc.

How do you find this works for you?

Interested in your intuition,

Louis Alloro 31 October 2009 - 4:06 pm

WJ – what do you mean by ‘rate’?

I think there are many ways to build mindfulness (hence my positive intervention at http://www.coachlouis.com/blog) – meditation is just one of them. I recently heard someone talking about how to build mindfulness in kids: have them walk up and down a corridor holding an egg (or a small ball) on the palm of their hands. Teach them to focus their attention on the egg so that it doesn’t fall off. I love this – so simple and so powerful.

What about for adults?


Jeff 4 November 2009 - 8:52 am

WJ, Louis, $enia,

WJ- I think relationships should be a pillar of positive sociology. Psychology tends to focus more on the individual person. Plus I think Seligman considered the Pleasant, Engaged, and Meaningful lives as a taxonomy to absorb relationships. Don’t most good relationships make us feel those three aspects?

I don’t consider circumstances to account for 10 percent of my happiness. I think the relationship is much more complex than that. If I lose my job, that has a large and lasting impact on my happiness, despite my happiness efforts. You grieve. Likewise being in extreme environments like being in isolation. You can and probably should pursue activities that boost morale. Yet I can’t say that those environments only produce 10 percent of your total happiness pie. When I asked Sonja about this she stated that, in fact, those kinds of extreme environments will partially nullify the happiness exercises’ impact. I think she meant that in normal everyday situations 10 percent is the typical pie slice. I’m hungry.

Let me clarify. I am extremely pleased with PPND and the progress of spreading info around. Awesome awesome well done awesome. The only thing that I am frustrated/eager to see is a tidal wave of pleasure, meaning, engagement, victory. Yeah. I want PPND to give the world a Coke. That sounds glib and it is, but truthfully why don’t people take to happiness…what are the hurdles? Again, I think the answer is stickiness as we discussed and motivational. What moves the human heart?

I love this site! Hi Kathryn!

Kathryn Britton 4 November 2009 - 4:46 pm

Your Zen story reminds me of a poem by Sir Thomas Browne:

If thou could`st empty all thyself of self

If thou could`st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, `This is not dead`,
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes, He says, `This is enow
Unto itself – `twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.`

Thomas Browne, 1605-1682

Kathryn Britton 4 November 2009 - 4:56 pm

Hi Jeff.
With respect to the 50% setpoint, 10% situation, 40% intentional behaviors, it’s important to remember that it is meant to explain variation in happiness across a population, not time-to-time variation across a person’s life.


Louis Alloro 4 November 2009 - 5:48 pm

Kathryn & Stephen – Here are some more:

“In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired; in pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.” (Lao Tzu)

“The soul grows by subtraction, not addition.” (Thoreau)

With gratitude for you sharing yours,

Jeff 5 November 2009 - 8:59 am


The ratios are for populations. I get that. They do indicate that her data posits a small circumstantial happiness impact whatever the exact number. I don’t believe that is correct except in comfortably middle class situations. I haven’t read her research and I love her book. That’s not the point.

The small impact of circumstances is just not true. I remember some data Seligman dug up about the impact of loss of loved ones, unemployment in both genders and lottery winners. Then there is the Calcutta Poor VS California Poor data of Biswas-Diener. Things matter. Other people matter. Relationships ARE circumstantial. These are circumstantial conditions (environment, milieu, context). Maybe “stuff” would be a better technical term or “materialism” than circumstances?

If circumstances were trivial, I can imagine the impact that living to the standard of not trying to change circumstances would have. It isn’t pretty. We wouldn’t have suffrage for just about anyone. We’ve have dictatorships and monarchy. Circumstances are very important. Progress would screech to a halt. Social mobility matters. IF bettering self and society is what you value. I do.

Besides, who wouldn’t want an extra 10 percent slice of pie? Context matters.

Kathryn Britton 5 November 2009 - 1:25 pm

No argument about the 10% piece of pie. Who said it was trivial?

I think it is not all that easy to untangle circumstances from intentional behavior. For example, take relationships. The well-being gained is from both circumstances (how does the other person behave, what circumstances are going on in that person’s life, what is that person’s mood, etc.) and your own behavior (how do you behave, how do you think about the other person’s behavior, how much of someone else’s suffering do you take on, how much of some’s joy do you share).

I guess I go back to George Box’s statement — all models are wrong, some models are useful. So to the extent that the pie metaphor is useful and opens up a sense of possibility for feeling better about life, great. Otherwise if it doesn’t work for you, scrap it. Kathryn

Darius 9 November 2009 - 5:37 pm


About the question you ask: “How can we be both social creatures and individualistic at the same time?” I don’t think that individuality keeps us from being truly social creatures. If anything it increases our social capacity. Instead of in a like-minded collectivist society, there is more diversity in beliefs in individualistic societies like the US, allowing for melting of ideas and higher levels of discussion. My friends and I are all very different, but this doesn’t make us less social with each other.
“Dialogue is born in unison, harmony and agreement.” I feel that more dialogue is born from differences in opinion. It doesn’t have to be ugly either, two people can agree to disagree, and it makes social interactions more interesting to see things from another point of view.

As everybody else said, I do like the whole I/you as opposed to “we” thing you talked about. But at the same time, not everybody wants to do the same thing. Sometimes you have to ask the other person where they want to go or what they want to do, and try to reach a compromise. I guess what i’m saying is you can’t always have “we”.


Louis Alloro 9 November 2009 - 7:10 pm

Jeff & Kathryn – Sorry for the delayed response. Was away traveling for biz. Good news is that when I speak about the 10% when I’m giving talks, there seems to be a sigh of relief among the crowd. It’s almost as if people are reassured in what they already know to be true: it’s not so much the circumstance, but how I respond to them . . . in every given moment. The power of now. Of course, this gets tricky because we are always in relationship and other people rain on our parades, perhaps even habitually so. It’s almost as if in these situations, we need to de-evolved for a minute – to alter the way the neurons fire, collectively. Phew. It’s not easy, even to write about it.


Louis Alloro 9 November 2009 - 7:16 pm

Hi Darius,

It’s okay to be different – so long as we can communicate with one another. Words are not the only way to do this.

From an evolutionary standpoint, social scientists would argue that we’ve evolved like bees, social creatures – and that this individualism is directing us away from each other, xenophobia. This spirit will lead to bio and ethno-extinction if we continue moving in the direction of “I/you” over “we”. I disagree with what you say: asking someone else where they want to go and coming to a compromise (a contract) is in and of it self, the “we”. Difference of opinion happens naturally, but empathy is born in language — following feeling.

Thanks for joining the conversation. I’m interested in hearing more of what you think.



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