Martin Seligman

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Martin Seligman
Seligman in 2009
Born (1942-08-12) August 12, 1942 (age 81)
Alma mater
Known for
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Pennsylvania

Martin Elias Peter Seligman (/ˈsɛlɪɡmən/; born August 12, 1942) is an American psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books. Seligman is a strong promoter within the scientific community of his theories of well-being and positive psychology.[1] His theory of learned helplessness is popular among scientific and clinical psychologists.[2] A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Seligman as the 31st most cited psychologist of the 20th century.[3]

Seligman is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Psychology. He was previously the Director of the Clinical Training Program in the department, and earlier taught at Cornell University.[4] He is the director of the university's Positive Psychology Center.[1] Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association for 1998.[5] He is the founding editor-in-chief of Prevention and Treatment (the APA electronic journal) and is on the board of advisers of Parents magazine.

Seligman has written about positive psychology topics in books such as The Optimistic Child, Child's Play, Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, and Flourish. His most recent book, The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, was published in 2018.

Early life and education[edit]

Seligman was born in Albany, New York, to a Jewish family. He was educated at a public school and at The Albany Academy. He earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy at Princeton University in 1964, graduating summa cum laude.[citation needed] He turned down a scholarship to study analytic philosophy at Oxford University, and animal experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and accepted an offer to attend the University of Pennsylvania to study psychology.[6]

He earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967.[7] In June 1989, Seligman received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Uppsala University, Sweden.[8]

Learned helplessness[edit]

Inescapable shock training in the shuttle box

Seligman's foundational experiments and theory of "learned helplessness" began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the experimental conditioning protocol they used with dogs led to behaviors which were unexpected, in that under the experimental conditions, the recently conditioned dogs did not respond to opportunities to learn to escape from an unpleasant situation.[9]

Seligman developed the theory further, finding learned helplessness to be a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to act or behave helplessly in a particular situation—usually after experiencing some inability to avoid an adverse situation—even when it actually has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance. Seligman saw a similarity with severely depressed patients, and argued that clinical depression and related mental illnesses result in part from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.[10] In later years, alongside Abramson, Seligman reformulated his theory of learned helplessness to include attributional style.[11]


In his 2002 book Authentic Happiness, Seligman saw happiness as made up of positive emotion, engagement and meaning.[12]

Positive psychology[edit]

Seligman worked with Christopher Peterson to create what they describe as a "positive" counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). While the DSM focuses on what can go wrong, Character Strengths and Virtues (2004) is designed to look at what can go right. In their research they looked across cultures and across millennia to attempt to distill a manageable list of virtues that have been highly valued from ancient China and India, through Greece and Rome, to contemporary Western cultures.[13]

Their list includes six character strengths: wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Each of these has three to five sub-entries; for instance, temperance includes forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-regulation.[14] The authors do not believe that there is a hierarchy for the six virtues; no one is more fundamental than or a precursor to the others.


In his book Flourish, 2011, Seligman wrote on "Well-Being Theory",[15] and said, with respect to how he measures well-being:

Each element of well-being must itself have three properties to count as an element:

  1. It contributes to well-being.
  2. Many people pursue it for its own sake, not merely to get any of the other elements.
  3. It is defined and measured independently of the other elements.

Seligman concluded that there are five elements to "well-being", which fall under the mnemonic PERMA:[15]

  • Positive emotion—Can only be assessed subjectively
  • Engagement—Like positive emotion, can only be measured through subjective means. It is presence of a flow state
  • Relationships—The presence of friends, family, intimacy, or social connection
  • Meaning—Belonging to and serving something bigger than one's self
  • Achievement—Accomplishment that is pursued even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and nothing in the way of positive relationships.

These theories have not been empirically validated.[citation needed]

In July 2011, Seligman encouraged the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to look into well-being as well as financial wealth in ways of assessing the prosperity of a nation. On July 6, 2011, Seligman appeared on Newsnight and was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman about his ideas and his interest in the concept of well-being.

MAPP program[edit]

The Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania was established under the leadership of Seligman as the first educational initiative of the Positive Psychology Center in 2003.[16]

Personal life[edit]

Seligman plays bridge and finished second in the 1998 installment of one of the three major North American pair championships, the Blue Ribbon Pairs, as well as having won over 50 regional championships.[17]

Seligman has seven children, four grandchildren, and two dogs. He and his second wife, Mandy, live in a house that was once occupied by Eugene Ormandy. They have home-schooled five of their seven children.[18]

Seligman was inspired by the work of the psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck at the University of Pennsylvania in refining his own cognitive techniques and exercises.[19]



  1. ^ a b Positive Psychology Center Archived July 3, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, University of Pennsylvania.
  2. ^ Bower, Gordon H. (1981). The psychology of learning and motivation: advances in research and theory. Academic Press, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-12-543315-0. The most popular theoretical interpretation of the learned helplessness phenomenon to date is that of Seligman (1975) and Maier and Seligman (1976).
  3. ^ Haggbloom, Steven J.; et al. (2002). "The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century". Review of General Psychology. 6 (2): 139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139. S2CID 145668721.
  4. ^ "A Brief Biography of Psychologist Martin Seligman".
  5. ^ "Former APA Presidents". American Psychological Association.
  6. ^ "Martin Seligman, Ph.D."[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ "The Pennsylvania Gazette: Martin Seligman's Journey". Retrieved March 27, 2021.
  8. ^ "Honorary doctorates". Uppsala University, Sweden.
  9. ^ Seligman, M.E.P.; Maier, S.F. (1967). "Failure to escape traumatic shock". Journal of Experimental Psychology. 74 (1): 1–9. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/h0024514. PMID 6032570.; Overmier, J.B.; Seligman, M.E.P. (1967). "Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance responding". Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. 63 (1): 28–33. doi:10.1037/h0024166. PMID 6029715. S2CID 17310110.
  10. ^ Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman. ISBN 978-0-7167-2328-8.
  11. ^ Abramson, L.Y.; Seligman, M.E.P.; Teasdale, JD (1978). "Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation". Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 87 (1): 49–74. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49. PMID 649856. S2CID 2845204.
  12. ^ "What is Well-Being? | Authentic Happiness".
  13. ^ Linley, P.A.; Maltby, J.; Wood, A.M.; Joseph, S.; Harrington, S.; Peterson, C.; Park, N.; Seligman, M.E.P. (2007). "Character strengths in the United Kingdom: The VIA Inventory of strengths" (PDF). Personality and Individual Differences. 43 (2): 341–351. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.12.004. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 17, 2011. Retrieved May 11, 2009.
  14. ^ Linley, P.A.; Maltby, J.; Wood, A.M.; Joseph, S.; Harrington, S.; Peterson, C.; Park, N.; Seligman, M.E.P. (2007). "Character strengths in the United Kingdom: The VIA Inventory of strengths" (PDF). Personality and Individual Differences. 43 (2): 341–351. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.12.004. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 17, 2011. Retrieved May 11, 2009.
  15. ^ a b Seligman, Martin (2011). Flourish. New York: Free Press. pp. 16–20. ISBN 978-1-4391-9076-0.
  16. ^ "MAPP program". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved April 10, 2014.
  17. ^ Francis, Henry G.; Truscott, Alan F.; Francis, Dorthy A., eds. (2001). The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge (6th ed.). Memphis, TN: American Contract Bridge League. p. 732. ISBN 0-943855-44-6. OCLC 49606900.
  18. ^ Burling, Stacey (May 30, 2010). "The power of a positive thinker". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved April 1, 2014.
  19. ^ Hirtz, Rob (January 1999). "Martin Seligman's Journey: from Learned Helplessness to Learned Happiness". The Pennsylvania Gazette. The University of Pennsylvania.

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