Who is Martin Seligman and What Does He Do?

martin seligmanMartin 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.

Born on August 12, 1942, in New York, Seligman is now a lead educator, researcher, and author of several bestselling books that make positive psychology accessible to everyone interested.

He served as the director of the clinical training program of the University of Pennsylvania for 14 years. His work revolves around the topics of learned helplessness, positive psychology, depression, resilience, optimism, and pessimism.

“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.

Today Seligman is the Zellerbach family professor of psychology and the director of the positive psychology center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

Martin Seligman’s Writings

He is the author of around 20 self-help books and over 250 articles about the science of what makes life worth living.

Several of his topics include:

  • The Optimistic Child (Houghton Mifflin, 1995)
  • Abnormal Psychology (Norton, 1982, 1988, 1995, with David Rosenhan)
  • Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2002)
  • Flourish (Free Press, 2011)
  • Learned Optimism (Knopf, 1991)
  • and (the lesser-known, but great read) What You Can Change And What You Can’t (2007).

After graduating in philosophy in 1964 at Princeton, Seligman he earned his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1998 he was declared the president of the American Psychological Association (APA). One of his primary activities was to encourage positive psychology as a field of scientific study.

TED Talk on Positive Psychology

Below you will find Martin Seligman’s inspiring TED Talk called The New Era of Positive Psychology:

In his talk, Seligman summarizes the state of psychology today. Then he continues to explain the three tenets of positive psychology, while also conveying the historic mistake of psychology:

“In our rush to do something about people in trouble, in our rush to do something about repairing damage, it never occurred to us to develop interventions to make people happier—positive interventions.”

Martin Seligman in his TED Talk (above)

If you have a moment, be sure to watch his Ted Talk. It is a powerful introduction into the scientific study of positive psychology.

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.

Learned Helplessness

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 (more about that here).

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

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.

What do you think of Seligman’s influence in the field? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


What our readers think

  1. Tripti Sharma

    Very keen to explore positive psychology work and tools.

  2. Christine Jordan

    Der “Wissenschaftler” hat Hunde gequält zu Forschungszeecken. Ganz toll und positiv. Der gehört in den Knast und nicht gefeiert!!!!!

  3. Patti Gilliano

    Hi! I am so excited to have been guided to study positive psychology! I learning and using the work of Dr. Seligman as a student PMHNP. I am a former Penn GUnursing2000. I really relate to his theories and am looking to learn more. I would love to visit the Positivity center one day, I am sure Penn has changed these past 21 yrs. Thank you Dr. Seligman for this amazing work.


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