Martin Seligman is not called the “father of positive psychology” for no reason. To many, he is one of the leading researchers in the whole field of psychology.
“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.”—Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, 1991.
Martin Seligman was born on August 12, 1942, in Albany, New York. After graduating high school, he attended Princeton University where he earned an A.B. degree in 1964. In 1967, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.
After working as an assistant professor at Cornell University, he returned to teach psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. During this time, he began researching learned helplessness.
Seligman discovered that when people feel they have no control over their situation, they tend to give up rather than fight for control. His research on helplessness and pessimism had important implications in the prevention and treatment of depression.
Seligman’s work researching learned pessimistic attitudes eventually led him to develop an interest in optimism, an interest that would eventually lead to the emergence of a new branch of psychology. In 1995, an important conversation with his daughter, Nikki, helped change the direction of his research.
While weeding in the garden, Seligman became perturbed and yelled at his daughter. In a keynote address to the North Carolina Psychological Association, Seligman described how his daughter sternly reminded him that she had not whined once since she had vowed to give up whining on her fifth birthday. If she was capable of giving up whining, she reasoned, her father should be able to “stop being such a grouch.”
In 1996, Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association (APA) by the largest vote in the organization’s history. Each APA president is asked to choose a central theme for his or her term and Seligman selected positive psychology.
Rather than focus on what ails us, he wanted mental health to be about more than just the absence of illness. Instead, Seligman strove to usher in a new era of psychology that also concentrates on what makes people feel happy and fulfilled. Today, Seligman is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Character Strengths and Virtues
Because of his engagement in the field, Seligman worked on a classification manual called the ‘Character Strengths and Virtues,’ that focuses on what can go right instead of what can go wrong.
This classification manual of character strengths and virtues consists of six classes of virtues that includes 27 character strengths.
Today, the manual functions as the ‘’positive counterpart’’ to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). While the DSM studies “the insanities,” Seligman’s character strength offers a review of the traits that influence, well, sanity.
Contributions to Psychology
Influenced by earlier humanist thinkers like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, positive psychology has continued to grow over the past two decades. Seligman is often referred to as the father of modern positive psychology.
In Haggbloom et al.’s 2002 article on the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Seligman was ranked as the 31st most eminent psychologist in addition to being the 13th most often cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks.
The most famous work of Martin Seligman is his research on the theory of learned helplessness.
“Learned helplessness is a term specifying an organism learning to accept and endure unpleasant stimuli, and unwilling to avoid them, even when it is avoidable.”
The idea behind the theory of learned helplessness is that animals can be conditioned to think that they have no control over the outcome of a situation that they are in—even when they actually do have the power to help themselves.
This occurs when they are repeatedly presented with an aversive stimulus that they can’t escape. The theory can also be applied to humans beings who think that they cannot change a situation and/or miss opportunities that make them feel helpless.
These people may be more likely to develop a mental illness such as clinical depression. These findings lead to a lot of other related studies that have helped psychologists understand the basis of depression.
Seligman used his knowledge on learned helplessness by working with the military to increase the psychological health of soldiers and decrease the rates of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The PERMA Model
Amongst the things he did during his work with the soldiers, Seligman created the PERMA model as a template to explore optimal human functioning and happiness.
In much of his work, Seligman familiarized the soldiers with this model and its five main features that are crucial for lasting wellbeing. These features are Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment or Achievement.
The basic idea is that to work towards a state of contentment, we must first understand what a happy life consists of after years of scientific research. The PERMA model can be applied to anyone seeking balance and fulfillment.
Positive Psychology Center
Martin Seligman is also the founder of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which mission it is to promote research, training, education, and the dissemination of Positive Psychology, resilience and grit.
Seligman’s Closing Thoughts
So can positive psychology actually study what makes people happy? Yes. However, Seligman wants to define that “happiness” is not the end goal, and maybe not the most attainable one either.
Seligman offers research into three forms of happy lives that he claims all humans are capable of achieving: a pleasant life, a life of engagement, or a life of meaning.
Want to learn more from this leader in the field? His books are bestsellers. Perhaps it is a good time to start reading Authentic Happiness or Flourish. It might change your life, or minimally, make you consider what value you want at the center of your life.
- Seligman, Martin E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.
- Seligman, Martin E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf.
- Seligman, Martin E. P. (1993). What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf.
- Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Haggbloom SJ, et al. The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century. Review of General Psychology. 2002:6(2),139–15.
Hirt R. Martin Seligman’s Journey From Learned Helplessness to Learned Happiness. The Pennsylvania Gazette. 1998.
Kass S. Martin E.P. Seligman Touts Positive Psychology at Smithsonian Program. Monitor on Psychology. 2000;31(9).
Meet Dr. Seligman. Authentic Happiness. University of Pennsylvania. 2006.
Wallis C. The New Science of Happiness. Time. 2005.