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What is a flourishing community? What does it look like and how do we build it?

Last week, I started my Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. And after my first intensive, I’m already in awe of the power of community building made available to us when we engage in communication, collaboration, and lifelong learning.

I was surrounded by classmates from diverse backgrounds who quickly transformed into an incredible community in just five days and I want to share some insights into the program’s dynamic facilitation that made it all possible.

This program already holds a special place in my heart, in part because it’s guided by the wisdom of one of the field’s pioneers, Professor Marty Seligman. Witnessing him embrace lifelong learning and flexibility at the age of 80 was powerful. He sets an incredible example of finding meaning and purpose in aging and I found it invigorating – I hope the same for my future.

So, what have I learned so far? I had the pleasure of speaking with one of my brilliant classmates, Ilene Schaffer, to dig into our community toolkits. We explore essential themes such as trust, vulnerability, humility, and the profound impact of recognizing each other’s unique strengths. Our conversation also touches upon positive communication, collaboration’s triumph over competition, and the enduring value of lifelong learning.

Key Takeaways:

  • Trust and Psychological Safety: Establishing an intimate, safe environment through communication from day one can foster vulnerability and authentic connections in the long run.
  • Leadership and Humility: Discover the importance of leaders modeling humility and willingness to learn from others, even in positions of authority.
  • Strength-Based Approach: How to recognize the individual capabilities of each person in order to understand how they complement one another, and you.
  • Collaboration Triumphs: Understand why fostering teamwork over competition is the key to collective success and a thriving community.
  • Plus, Power of Positive Introductions: Hear tips for elevating this seemingly simple process to rapidly deepen connections within a group and build a strong sense of community.

If you found today’s episode enlightening and want to hear more, make sure to subscribe and leave a review on your favorite podcast platform. Share this episode with friends and family who want to learn more about psychology and community building!



      • Leadership and connection. (3:30)
      • The power of the group itself. (8:18)
      • The importance of a positive introduction. (13:27)
      • How to be a better communicator. (17:37)
      • Competition vs. Collaboration. (23:29)


If you want to work towards your goals and more, check out my self-paced online course: Moxy & Grit Mindset Academy.

Episode Transcript

Sonya Looney 0:00
All right. Ilene, my fellow master podcaster and Coach, welcome.

Ilene Schaffer 0:07
Thank you, Sonya, it is such a treat to get to be here with you at our home instead of in Philadelphia.

Sonya Looney 0:14
I know. And I’m so excited to get to share the insights of this incredible immersion week that we had at the University of Pennsylvania and the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program. But first, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ilene Schaffer 0:28
Of course, let’s see. It’s funny, we literally both the two of us just got home from this amazing learning opportunity. And I feel like my brain is swirling. So now to answer actually, what should be an easy question might take me more more effort than usual. So I, in terms of my professional background, I do executive coaching. And then I also lead an executive coaching firm. And we work specifically with senior leaders in organizations on leadership development, one to one coaching, and helping leaders really optimize their ability to lead their organizations, all of the people on our team come from a positive psychology background, which is exactly what the two of us are studying. And so we always weave the science of well being into all of the coaching that we do, because as you and I both know, that well being piece is essential for us to show up as best as possible, both in the work environment as well as in life in general. So that’s a bit about our company, I am calling in from San Diego, California, where the weather is so much more delightful than the steamy hotness in Philadelphia, and coming off of just a huge high of being together with a bunch of strangers who immediately became friends.

Sonya Looney 1:52
And that’s what I want to talk about today. Building a flourishing community, which is something that I’m sure that you practice in your executive coaching and in the firm, because when you’re working with leaders, you have to help them thrive so that they can help others do the same. But something that I found really incredible was that in our program, there was 50 people, or 5150 to 51 people selected for this for this group. And they had a rigorous process to make these selections. And it appeared to me that every single person, there was somebody that highly valued connection, everybody walked around with eyes open looking to make eye contact, looking to find a way to relate looking for a high quality connection. And as a group, we got to define values for our group that was that was some of the exercises woven into some of this, these educational lectures was what was our values as a group. And then there was an opportunity to further develop vulnerability in a safe way as a group, which we can talk about. And the combination of those things seem to create an alchemy that made a thriving community in a very short period of time. I mean, I felt like after a day, we were already very connected. And I said to my husband, that it was like, I now have 50 best friends and not not an exaggeration. I literally feel like I have 50 best friends. And the positive psychology, the field of positive psychology was founded at the University of Pennsylvania, this is the the hub for for many of the research coming out to help the world thrive and flourish. And they are practicing it on us while they teach us how to do it. So, you know, Ilene, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what your experience was like.

Ilene Schaffer 3:40
Yeah, you know, it’s, it really is interesting to think about the evolution of connection throughout the five days that we were together. And as you talk about it, I think there were some key elements that made this environment fertile for connection. And one of the things that the the faculty did from day one, which when I think about leadership development, when I think about being an effective leader and building culture, it ties right back into that. And it’s setting the tone, the expectation and the environment for trust. And they set it up right out the gate for psychological safety to really feel like you belong. As James said, You are needed. There were key things that they talked about that made us feel like we are supposed to be here. And when you take an Ivy League education where a lot of us didn’t go Ivy League undergrad, and all of a sudden you’re thrown in and you feel like, oh my gosh, is this gonna be cutthroat? And then you walk into an environment that is so nurturing, so loving, so caring, it gets everybody it allows people to let their shields down so that you really can connect on a deeper level and I think that’s something that We can take into our homes into our schools and into our work environments is what what are we doing to open that door for connection when we bring people into our homes or our environments. And so I really have to kind of high five, the crew that that really set the format for our initial meetings together as a cohort, because they allowed for that to grow.

Sonya Looney 5:25
I love that you said trust. And they also gave us the autonomy to create the values and set the tone of the group. But the leaders of the program set the tone themselves. So a lot of times leadership tone is set at the top by how the leaders are interacting with others. And every single person who was an instructor or a staff member, embodied exactly what the group embodied by the end, this this warmth, this humility, this, this meeting everybody where they are instead of talking down to somebody and building a hierarchy, and of course, we respect the the leaders of this program, but they also created a bridge so that we don’t view them as completely other.

Ilene Schaffer 6:13
Yeah, you know, and to that point, I just had a vision of Marty Seligman, who is one of the main thought leaders in positive psychology who really created this program. And most people know about positive psychology because of Marty Seligman. He’s written everything from authentic happiness, to learn helplessness, to the hope circuit, and to watch him in our classes. He’s one of our faculty members, to watch him in our classes, not only as a teacher, but also as a student, and asking questions we just for your audience, they bring into this program, the thought leaders across the spectrum to teach us about the science of well being. And so in Dr. Seligman, his class he brings in really amazing leadership to teach us the whole time he’s on the edge of his seat, raising his hand asking questions, and perusing, you know, walking around the class, so that when a student either has something that they want to share or a question they want to ask, he’s right in front of them, so he can listen and learn from them. And I think that also sets the tone when you have somebody who you assume knows pretty much everything they could know about positive psychology. And they are coming in as a learner, and wanting to grow, and an experience as part of this community. That sets a pretty powerful tone for the group dynamic.

Sonya Looney 7:48
Yeah, that was so incredible to see, I was blown away by that. And the fact that you could never know too much you could never know everything, that you’re always in a process of learning no matter who you are, even if you’re one of the top leaders in the field of psychology, which was incredible. And I also was really inspired by his flexibility, because he’s 80 years old, many people who are 80 are not involved at the top level in an Ivy League school leading research. Just don’t and that’s such a great example for what it means to have meaning and purpose as you age. And by no means do people need to be doing what he’s doing when they’re 80. But still finding that thing that lights you up. And his ability to be flexible with his beliefs and to question things like he did that speech for us. And he said, in the last three months, he’s, we’ve uncovered something that’s going to change humanity forever. And that’s AI and the willingness of him to want to explore that and go all in on that. That inspired me because when I heard first heard of AI, which wasn’t too long ago, I was resistant to adopt it hesitant about it, and Marty is adopting it. Our program is adopting it. And that was an eye opener for me.

Ilene Schaffer 9:00
Yeah, I agree. It’s one of those things, where you could think, Ah, well, I’m just I’m not, I’m hesitant about AI, or I’m not so, so hot on it, you don’t really have a choice at this point. So your choice is to lean in and figure out how can I use this to optimize whatever I’m doing to be stronger, to be better to be more thoughtful, whatever that looks like, or missed the boat completely. But I think it’s it’s in our best interests to hop on and figure out how can I use this tool in a positive way and to make greater impact in the world in which we live.

Sonya Looney 9:38
So something else I’m just looking at my notebook, because at the end of class, the very last 30 minutes they asked everybody what their takeaways were. And it was very collaborative, collaborative environment with many voices. So I wrote down a bunch of them. And that just had me thinking about the power of the group itself. Because I think this is a new field. You know, I think positive psychology was is quote invented by Marty Seligman in 1998, did I get the date? Right? Do you know? Right, right around there? 9899? Yeah, yeah. And many of us have been lifting up rocks, like trying to find words to describe this phenomenon of what it means to live a good life. What these processes are, most people that we talked to don’t know what the word positive psychology means. So to come into a group where everybody has a similar mission, and people speak the same language, and people share the share that mission is just, it’s hard for me to put words to it, I’m hoping that you can help me. Yeah, like, what is that experience? How do you put that into words?

Ilene Schaffer 10:42
Yeah, you know, it’s, I come a little bit from a unique perspective, because our company has so many graduates from our program. So I have this privilege of getting to be immersed in it in our work. However, I do. And I it makes me think about the podcasts that your most recent podcasts, and I remember he, Charlie, that’s the name. Yeah, yes, Charlie, and go, thank you. Um, he said, you know, really pay attention to who you’re surrounding yourself with. And I think that’s something that tying it back to this is you walk into a room like, like this, and we know emotions are contagious. And so we know that when you’re surrounding yourself with people who lift you up, you’ll, you’ll in turn be lifting others up. And so it’s a very, it’s, it’s an experience like no other to be around people who really have a common goal of putting more good into the world. And I think one thing for your listeners who aren’t familiar with positive psychology, it’s really easy to think, you know, I’m not so big on you know, let’s be happy all day, or some people call it happy ology, or toxic positivity. And it’s, that is not what we’re talking about. Just to be clear, when you look at positive when you look at positive psychology, we’re talking about north of neutral. So my original Master’s is actually in counseling psychology. And what traditional therapy or counseling does is it diagnose mental illness. And that’s south of neutral, if you will, positive psychology, the goal really was how do we know if someone’s flourishing and how what are some lessons we can take to take people from neutral into that positive zone? And so now imagine a whole class that that is our whole focus is to look for what’s right, look for what’s working, and how do we get more of that? And more importantly, how do we spread that to other people? It really it does, it creates a ripple effect, that that can give you chills.

Sonya Looney 12:57
That made me think of Barb Fredrickson ins, word, positivity, resonance, you can we all talk about, oh, that thing really resonated with me, or that person really resonated with me and the power of resonance. And Barbara Frederickson also talks about the upward spiral of how positive emotions creates an upward spiral. So collectively, you can build an even bigger upward spiral and stronger resonance whenever you have a group that is doing something like that. So for people listening, they’re like, oh, that sounds awesome. You know, but that’s, that’s not the world that I live in, you know, I’m not in this in this in the zone. I want to create that in the zone that I’m in. So how do I create that. And I’m trying to think back to the steps of how they built that we talked about the leadership, and how from day one moment, one they presented in a certain way, but they also encourage participation from the group. And there are a number of things that they did, so that people’s voices felt heard. But one of the interventions that they that they did was a positive introduction. And that’s something that most of us probably haven’t done with people that we just met. So the positive introduction was, we had to pick a story that was impactful from our life that shifted things for us. And then we had to tell somebody about it. And people listening might not think that’s a very big deal. But whenever you just meet somebody, not everybody is open and wanting to share stuff right away with people they just met. And I’d love to hear Ilene about about your experience with the positive introductions, but I’ll tell my experience was we’re putting in groups Well, first we had everybody we had a circle of chairs with 50 people. And there were some things that were done before that to prime us, you know, to be in, in a receptive mood to do this, but there was a group of 50 people, one person’s name was drawn out of a hat, to share a story to share their positive introduction, which required an incredible amount of courage to get up in front of a group and share something vulnerable and then we got to as a group helped that person savor moments of that story that they told us where we noticed the person lighting up. And then as a group, we got to reflect back strengths that that person that we heard from that person. And that really was a moving example for us. And I guess I’ll stop there. Because I mean, I don’t want to talk the whole time, I want to hear what you thought of the positive introduction in the circle of 50. People.

Ilene Schaffer 15:25
Yeah. One thing that I love that the question or when one of the asks of us as the group of 50. And then when we broke out into smaller groups, where we each shared ours, and with a small group of three, four or five people, where we started before we went into strengths was Help Help the person who has just shared, deepen their experience of what they just shared. And I love that question, because it becomes not about you as the listener, but about you as a person who has shared. So an example of that would be when the person shares that they, let’s say, they they’re sharing about their first time public speaking, I’m just making this up. And instead of saying, you know, asking a question that’s important for me, like, oh, did you get public speaking training? Where did you go, which would be really about me, that’s not in the best interest of the person who just shared, but instead saying, Wow, that must have been, you know, obviously, it created a lot, it required a lot of bravery. What changed in you when you stood up and and spoke to that group for the first time, so that the person can go a little bit deeper in their experience and realize, wow, they have some aha moments of this shifted in me, this is what it required. Again, going back to your last podcast with Charlie, he talks a lot about curiosity, and adversity. And I think all of these stories that people shared, have some adversity that they are sharing that’s part of that positive introduction. And then for the people listening to be curious, but ask curious questions that will help the individual dig deeper, and then we bought bumped, or then we moved into straights that we saw in that person. So then it just to watch the individual just lift up, you almost felt like you’re filling them up with helium.

Sonya Looney 17:37
Yeah. Yeah, like the the communication we talked about, like, what does it mean to be a good listener? What does it mean to give a good response when somebody is telling you something that is particularly important or vulnerable to them? And I’ll send people to a podcast I recorded a couple months ago called How to be a better communicator, where a bunch of this stuff is covered, reflecting what the person said, reflecting back to them what they said, which is a big thing that we do in coaching, asking an open ended question that isn’t about you, and having an active constructive response, which is also in that how to be a better communicator. And I think that that was really important to set the tone again, for how are we going to be responding to people? How are we going to be listening to people, because the groups are able to take those skills and apply them? And I think that builds, that builds even more report as a group and or individual groups.

Ilene Schaffer 18:28
Yeah, definitely. And I think kind of going a little bit further on that report piece, what these positive introductions also did, it got rid of the fluff, the fluff of, you know, Hi, my name is Ilene. And this is what I do. This is where I live kind of like what I shared at the beginning of this podcast. However, we don’t have time, obviously, to go into deep, deep introductions. But when you were forming a community, whether it’s at work, whether it’s in a school environment, whether it’s a team environment, when you’re forming a community, if you want to create depth of connection, in a shorter amount of time, if you can give guidelines to how somebody can introduce themselves in a meaningful, purposeful way, it really unlocks the door to connection.

Sonya Looney 19:20
That’s something that I’m thinking about is that in the group, we are all for the most part, very willing to do this. And some of it was pretty much required that in our small groups, we had to do it. But in an environment, like a corporate environment, or a team environment, not every person might be willing to do this to build this type of connection. And I don’t I don’t know the answer to this. And Ilene, maybe you can speak to this. What do you do in a situation where somebody isn’t willing to open up like that and give a positive introduction of any kind?

Ilene Schaffer 19:50
Yeah, such a good question. And I think it’s so important regardless of where we are, that we meet people where they are, you know it It’s really not about this is the assignment bacup, you got to do it, it’s, it’s, this is the assignment and you take it where it’s comfortable for you. And I think that that allows people who do want to open up a little bit deeper, they can, people who want to stay a little bit more at the surface, that’s okay to what was really interesting in the example that you just gave where we were in the large group, and we had one person share. And that person, her name was pulled out of a hat. But we already had ground rules, if someone’s name was pulled out of a hat, and they didn’t want to be the example they did not need to be that immediately created some trust. So there’s a couple things is if you have somebody who’s willing to go first, that can really set the tone and allow that door to be open to a little bit more vulnerability, people still have the choice to limit what they share, they are picking a story that resonates with them, and it doesn’t have to be a tear jerker, it doesn’t have to be where, you know, they found a cure for cancer, it doesn’t have to be something earth shattering. It can be something really small, that’s meaningful and purposeful to them. And what we did find is some people shifted their story after hearing that first example, they had gone lighter. And then they decided, You know what, I actually want to open up more. But it was on their own terms, it wasn’t that it was mandatory.

Sonya Looney 21:30
What are some other things that you notice? Like, I’ve come up with a few different things that that I noticed in the group and building a flourishing community? Like, what kind of inputs Do you have?

Ilene Schaffer 21:40
Yeah, I think one thing is realizing we all have different strengths. And I know for me, that was really important because I do come to this field with some friends with the I’m going to say more of the application, the Masters in his in applied positive psychology. So the A is the applied piece of it. In our work, we do a lot of the applied pieces. In our day to day, there’s other areas like research and stat, which I have not taken since I was in graduate school the first time, which was a long, long, long time ago. That area makes me more nervous. And there are other people in the class that that is their jam, and the applying piece are like a fish out of water. And so what’s really nice in the community that builds trust, that builds camaraderie is to realize we all bring something. And again, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a school environment, or an athletic environment, any other environment is to really think about what your own strengths are, and to look for the strengths and others. And then to lean on that and we have created in incredibly, I was gonna say active, maybe overactive, but it’s really fun Whatsapp group, and where people are sharing all different things. And that also helps to facilitate that community peace. And when people are feeling like, you know, this is tough that other people chime in, and really knowing that nobody’s doing this life alone, that we’re all here to support one another, and we can all lend our gifts to make the hole even better.

Sonya Looney 23:29
Yeah, I love that. That’s, that’s so beautifully said and a very, very good insight. Because there’s like a word that people use that can be almost a hostile word. And I’ve been working on helping people not see this word in that one way. And I actually did an entire article in episode on it. And that word is competition. I heard people say this is a non competitive environment to say that to allude to the fact that this is a collaborative environment. And we could probably record another episode about that I don’t think competitive needs to be hostile and competitive doesn’t meet doesn’t need to mean that I am not collaborating. So that’s just that’s just something I noticed that I wanted to point out for anybody listening and think about how you use the word competition and what that means to you. But But what you said, Ilene, is that we’re all going to have different strengths. And in a hostile competitive environment, we feel like we have to be better than everybody. And we have to hold those strengths over everybody else. And we have to have everything figured out and be perfect. Like that is kind of what an constricted competitive feeling is. But when you’re in a group where there’s positive competition, that means that you can look at people around you and say, I don’t have to be strong and have strengths or be strong in the same way that the people around me are strong. their strengths are their strengths, and I don’t have to compete with their strengths. My strengths are my strengths and together, we can all do better we can raise He’s up the entire level of the group with all of these different strengths instead of trying to compete against them.

Ilene Schaffer 25:05
Yeah. And and almost even get to a place of gratitude of thank God, that there are people that are stronger in areas where I’m not because those are my people, you know, those are the people I need to go to to say, Hey, did you understand this? Or how do you do X, Y, and Z? Because for then it might just come as second nature, whereas for me, it’s really not within my day to day.

Sonya Looney 25:30
Yeah. And I also think that they’ve created an environment where we can ask a lot of questions openly and encouraging us to learn from each other instead of only learning from the instructor. Yeah, so that also gives an opportunity for people that have different strengths to be able to exercise those and the types of questions that they ask and the type of commentary that they give.

Ilene Schaffer 25:50
Yeah, without question, one other things just to think about in terms of this competition versus collaboration, and probably there’s a place where they both can live harmoniously competition and collaboration, but depending on the environment, and so an environment, like you compete in obviously, competition is important that you’re competing at the highest level possible, and you do ultimately want to win. In this there isn’t as much winning. And I think that’s probably also the nature of this program. What will win is if we tip the scales, so the majority of the world is flourishing, that is our goal, as a group is to help the world flourish, it will not serve the world well, if we’re competing in this environment. So that’s one thing. The other thing that Barbara Fredrickson said that I really love, was that community helps build positive emotions, and positive emotions help build community, it goes both ways. And so it’s also in our best interest, we know positive emotions. When we have those flooding our body, it does broaden our view, both our actual view our peripheral view, as well as our ability to be more creative, be more effective in in how we’re living our lives to have greater life satisfaction. And those positive emotions can also help to combat as Marty was saying, cardiovascular disease, so there’s health implications to to generating more positive emotions. So we want that happening. And if community can help that, that take place, I’m all for it.

Sonya Looney 27:34
Okay, now, we need to attempt to summarize all of these amazing ideas, which normally I kind of take notes when I’m podcasting. But today, I haven’t been so we’re gonna we’re gonna do our best here. And I’d love your help. So how about let’s each this just go back and forth following the key takeaways. Sounds good. Number one, the communication is really important, the way in which we communicate to each other to create an environment of trust.

Ilene Schaffer 28:00
Yes, showing up with vulnerability, and realizing I don’t need to know everything. And there’s a whole group of people around me who also want me to succeed and who I want to succeed and leaning into that will help you thrive.

Sonya Looney 28:17
Number three, as a leader, showing up with humility, knowing that you will always be able to learn from anybody around you.

Ilene Schaffer 28:28
And I’m going to say number four, is be a student in life. And when we’re a student in life, just like Marty Seligman, we let go of expectations, and you can really open your brain, your mind, your heart, your body, to absorbing learning and becoming an even stronger and a better influence.

Sonya Looney 28:51
And I’ll put one more the last one. And this is just reflecting what we said a moment ago is that look for the look at the people around you, and try to recognize their strengths so that you can build a tapestry of all of your strengths together to make the collective impact of the group even better.

Ilene Schaffer 29:07
Oh, that’s a perfect ending.

Sonya Looney 29:10
Well, Ilene, thanks so much for coming on the show. I’m personally I’m excited to continue sharing with my community about how positive psychology impacts well being and, and performance and how those intersect. And even this, this notion of competition, which is another area that I’m really passionate about.

Ilene Schaffer 29:31
Thank you so much for having me. I feel like the blessing in this program, like you said, is having a whole group of new best friends who are on the same mission and I feel grateful for the privilege to learn alongside you.

Sonya Looney 29:47
Alright, and where can people find your podcast?

Ilene Schaffer 29:50
Oh, yes. Thank you for asking. My podcast is What’s Possible. You can find us on Apple Spotify or wherever you get your favorite podcast and we He blend leadership and well being so please come find us we’d love to have you join the show

Sonya Looney 30:05
alright thanks Ilene

Ilene Schaffer 30:07
Thank you

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