Who is Martin Seligman?


Professor Martin Seligman founder of the Positive Psychology movement appeared on the British TV programme Newsnight in 2011. This American Psychology Professor had been instrumental in getting David Cameron to look into well-being and not just financial prosperity as a way of assessing national prosperity.

Of course the coalition government has been criticised for placing happiness and a positive outlook on its agenda. It might be that some will scorn a positive development sites such as this as too in line with government thinking and promoting middle class ideas of prosperity rather than true mental health.

Yet, what Seligman is actually proposing is a deeper than just happiness it is a resilient well being based on having a purpose in life.

In this clip Seligman is being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman about his ideas and his interest in the concept of well-being.

In his most recent book is Flourish Seligman explains that there is actually more to life than happiness. For instance Seligman says that the single biggest boost to improving your well being is to help someone else. The positive emotion of happiness is only part of the formula, he argues, we also need a purpose in life.

Seligman outlines the factors needed for well-being in the acronym PERMA.

PERMA stands for:

  • Positive emotion — tunable by writing down, every day at bed time, three things that went well, and why
  • Engagement — tunable by preferentially using one’s highest strengths to perform the tasks which one would perform anyway
  • Relationships — tunable, but not in a way that can be explained briefly; listen to timestamp 15:12 and following of the audio
  • Meaning — belonging to and serving something bigger than one’s self
  • Achievement — determination is known to count for more than IQ

Seligman is certainly not advocating a shallow, smiley-type happiness. He admits that he is a natural born pessimist and depressive and that this has spurred on his research into positive psychology.

Why is Martin Seligman famous?

Photo by the US Army on Flickr

Photo by the US Army on Flickr

Martin Seligman founded the field of Positive Psychology in the year 2000. He is well known both as an author of popular and rigorous self help books on motivation and personality and as an award winning academic researcher and lecturer.

His book Authentic Happiness is both a seminal work in this field containing outlines of key theories and research and is a readable, practical self help book.

He has devoted his to the furthering the study of positive emotions, positive character traits and positive institutions.

He currently works as a Professor for the University of Pennsylvania where he has developed The Masters in Applied Positive Psychology – the first initiative of the Positive Psychology Center of which he is the director. Here he is developing clinical tools and training the next generation of psychologists in the field of Positive Psychology.

Seligman also worked with Christopher Peterson to develop the scale of Character Strengths and Virtues as a positive counterpart to the Diagnostic & Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders.

What is learned helplessness?

When researching into Skinner’s ideas of conditioning in animals he found that when they have experienced an unpleasant situation that they were unable to avoid despite trying they learn not to even try to avoid similar situations in the future.

In a similar way humans who go through adversity can learn through what happens to them that it is not worth trying. When they fail to solve their problems they give up. This learned helplessness, he argued, is a symptom of clinical depression.

What is learned optimism?

Seligman’s research into how the pessimistic ideas that are learned in his learned helplessness theory took a new turn. As a result of this he became interested in optimism and developed a similar theory of learned optimism.

He then went onto develop a similar theory of learned optimism. That we can learn that it is possible not only to avoid unpleasant situations but by our action to find experience more pleasant ones.

Circumstances can often teach learned helplessness but rarely learned optimism. In his book Learned Optimism Seligman advocates using classic cognitive behavioural techniques of disputing negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive thoughts in order to learn this optimistic outlook yourself.

Seligman was inspired by the work of Aaron T Beck who first developed these cognitive behavioural techniques to treat depression. Seligman refined Beck’s ideas to use not only to treat learned helplessness but to develop learned optimism.

When did he get interested in Positive Psychology?

His ideas of learned optimism were foundational in developing the field of positive psychology. It was while researching into this that he became fascinated with the positive side of human thinking.

But his work gained a new impetus in 1995. Seligman tells the story about his daughter challenging him to “stop being such a grouch”. This significant conversation led him to change direction and use this research as a foundation to a brand new branch of psychology – Positive Psychology.

The following year Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association by a landslide vote. As president he was asked to choose a theme for his term and Seligman selected his new school of positive psychology as the theme.

He wanted to encourage psychologist to focus on what makes people feel happy and fulfilled rather than on fixing psychological problems. His aim was and still is to usher in a new era in psychology with this paradigm of positive psychology.

Related Posts

What is Positive Psychology?
Authentic Happiness
Authenticity: A Key Character Strength

Further Reading

Authentic Happiness: Seligman’s own website:
This 2012 article in the Guardian criticising the coalition government for using Seligman’s measure of well-being.
Martin Selgiman: staff profile University of Pennsylvania


January 17, 2013Permalink 5 Comments

5 thoughts on “Who is Martin Seligman?

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