Martin Seligman Biography – Contributions To Psychology

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Martin E. P. Seligman is an American psychologist, author, researcher, and educator. He is widely considered to be the father of positive psychology. He is also well known for his theories of learned helplessness and well-being. Seligman is one of the most respected and cited psychologists alive today.

Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman's Childhood

Martin Elias Peter Seligman was born on August 12, 1942 in Albany, New York. His parents were Adrian Seligman and Irene Brown. Adrian was a handsome, determined man and a brilliant lawyer who eventually decided to work as a civil servant. 

Seligman also had an older sister named Beth who was very fond of him. When he was born, Beth wanted to help name him and chose the name “Peter.” Seligman was also named after his grandfather (Martin) and his mother’s grandfather (Elias). He was raised in a middle-class Jewish family.

Early Educational Background

As a child, Seligman was very smart and a fast learner. He identified strongly with his Jewish roots. As his family had limited funds, Seligman attended public school. It did not take Adrian Seligman long to realize that if Martin was to get into a good college, he needed to leave School 16. Adrian wanted Martin to attend the Albany Academy for Boys (AAB)—a private military school. Martin did very well on the admissions IQ test and was the first boy to finish. His sister Beth made the sacrifice to attend the free New York State Teachers’ College in Albany so the family could afford to send Martin to AAB in September of 1955.   

Although Seligman performed very well academically at AAB, he did not have much success socially. He often felt rejected and alone because his modest background was very different from that of his wealthy schoolmates. To make matters worse, his father Adrian had a stroke in 1955. While at the hospital, his father had another stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. 

With Adrian Seligman unable to function as he did before, the Seligman family fell on hard financial times. Martin’s parents decided to send him back to public school so the family could save money. Martin did not want to return to public school, but he accepted the decision because he saw the desperate financial situation his family was in. He also decided to get a magazine job because at 13 years old, he considered himself the man of the house now.

When AAB opened for school in 1956, the headmaster, Harry E. P. Meislahn, offered Martin Seligman a full scholarship. Of course, Martin still had to work at his magazine job to help care for the family expenses, but he was very happy to attend AAB again. In honor of his headmaster, Seligman later included his middle initials as a part of his title. To this day, he prefers to be called “ Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman” rather than “Dr. Martin Seligman.”  

When Seligman came back to AAB, his social situation improved a bit. He became good friends with Paul Monaco, a classmate who was also of modest means and whose father had died of a heart attack. Due to his pessimistic nature, Seligman was not very successful with the opposite sex, so he hoped to attract girls by being the type of guy who listens. He believes developing his listening skills was perhaps the first step toward becoming a great psychologist.    

Martin Seligman’s Higher Educational Background

Martin Seligman graduated from the Albany Academy for Boys in 1960. In his final year at AAB, he became more absorbed in the humanities. After he enrolled at Princeton University, Seligman’s interest in the humanities moved him to study philosophy. During his freshman year, Seligman met and was heavily influenced by Robert Nozick, who was a graduate student in philosophy at the time.

In the summer between his junior and senior years, Seligman participated in his first laboratory study in psychology. He was also the captain of the Princeton bridge team. At Princeton, Seligman felt as if his intelligence was more important than his financial background. He earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1964.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Seligman was faced with a trilemma. He was offered a scholarship to study analytic philosophy with Geoffrey Warnock at Oxford University, he was offered a scholarship to study animal experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN), and he had the option of becoming a professional bridge player. He turned to his friend and mentor, Robert Nozick for advice. In the end, Seligman decided to study psychology because he really wanted to help people.

While earning his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman worked with Steve Maier on the theory of learned helplessness. Seligman received his PhD in psychology in 1967. He then accepted a position as an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University. However, the heated political environment at Cornell motivated him to return to UPENN.

Seligman continued as an associate professor and later as a professor of psychology at UPENN. He resumed his research on learned helplessness and depression. Seligman’s research led to major breakthroughs in the treatment and prevention of depression. In 1980, Seligman became the Director of the Clinical Training Program of the Psychology Department of the University of Pennsylvania.

Seligman kept his position at UPENN for 14 years. In 1998, he was elected as the President of the American Psychological Association with a record number of votes. Seligman chose “positive psychology” as the theme for his term in office. He wanted to explore new ideas about optimism, establish a more positive focus for the field of psychology, and help create a happier world.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

The term ‘learned helplessness’ was coined by Seligman in the late 1960’s to describe the acquired belief that one is powerless to control events and outcomes in life. The theory was developed based on a series of animal studies conducted by Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania.

In one of Seligman’s experiments, three groups of dogs were studied in two phases. In the first phase of the experiment, all the dogs were securely strapped into harnesses. Dogs in the first group (A) were simply strapped in for a period of time and then released. Those in the second group (B) were exposed to a series of electrical shocks from which they could escape by pressing a panel. The third group (C) of dogs received the same number of shocks but could not control or escape from them.

In the second phase of the study, the dogs were placed in a box with two compartments separated by a low barrier. The researchers administered a series of electrical shocks, each preceded by a signal. The dogs could avoid or escape the shocks by jumping the barrier and crossing over to the other side.

The researchers found a major difference in the behavior of dogs in group C compared to the other two groups. Two-thirds of the dogs in group C (those that had received inescapable shocks in the first stage of the study) failed to learn how to escape or avoid the uncomfortable shocks; they simply endured the treatment. Although a few of these dogs occasionally managed to escape, on later trials they failed to repeat the escape behavior; they simply went back to enduring the shocks. On the other hand, the dogs in groups A and B learned how to escape the shocks relatively quickly. In time, they even learned how to avoid the shocks altogether by responding to the signal.

Based on the findings of his studies, Seligman concluded that learned helplessness is not merely a result of trauma, but results from exposure to uncontrollable trauma. If the organism is able to exert some level of control over the traumatic incident, the likelihood of learned helplessness is greatly diminished.

Organisms that are exposed to uncontrollable trauma often display the following three features of learned helplessness:

  1. Passivity - The inability to control events and outcomes in the past makes organisms less likely to initiate responses when faced with future stressful events. They may respond very slowly or not at all. This loss of motivation occurs even when the uncontrollable outcome is a positive one. For example, if a subject learns that his or her behavior has no effect on the presentation of a reward, he or she will also display passivity in future situations where control of the reward is possible.
  1. Learning retardation - Animals that have learned that they cannot influence the outcome of a situation usually have a hard time learning that they can influence what happens in future situations. If they do in fact learn, they tend to learn very slowly and like the dogs in Seligman’s study, may even revert to their previous passive behavior.
  1. Emotional stress - Learning that one has no control over important events usually results in a great deal of emotional stress. A depressed mood and symptoms of anxiety are often experienced.

Dogs are not the only species susceptible to learned helplessness. Seligman and others have demonstrated similar effects in cats, rats, mice, fish and humans. Seligman even proposed that depression in humans is a parallel of the learned helplessness he observed in lab animals. He noted many similarities between the two conditions, including passivity, helplessness and hopelessness. He concluded that people become depressed when they believe they are helpless to control stressful situations in their life.

Since lack of control is the primary cause of learned helplessness, teaching the organism that control is possible can help to overcome the problem. In another of Seligman’s studies, passive dogs that were forcibly dragged from the shock zone to a safe area of the box eventually overcame their learned helplessness.

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology pioneered by Seligman in the late 1990’s. By means of scientific research, Seligman and others have identified a number of factors that contribute to happiness. This branch of psychology is popular today and has influenced how we approach therapy, treatment, and behavior.

Seligman noted that most of the earlier approaches in the field of psychology focused on negative aspects of the human personality, such as maladaptive behavior, negative emotions, and personality weaknesses. Seligman’s aim was to advance an alternative school of thought focusing on what is good about people. Positive psychology therefore deals with topics such as happiness, resilience, optimism, self-esteem, and optimal human functioning.

So what contributes to happiness? Seligman and his colleagues have identified a number of factors:

  • Attractiveness
  • Optimism
  • Extraversion
  • Physical activity
  • A high level of self-efficacy and self-esteem
  • A high level of social support and social involvement
  • Living in a wealthy country
  • Adopting a healthy lifestyle
  • Having specific goals
  • Believing that one is in control of one’s life

In 2002, Seligman proposed the ‘Authentic Happiness’ theory, which states that happiness has three domains or components:

  1. The pleasant life - this involves experiencing a range of positive emotions, including joy, hope, faith, optimism and satisfaction as it relates to the past, present and future.
  2. The engaged life - this involves utilizing one’s strengths and talents in positive ways and becoming absorbed in one’s work, relationships, and leisure activities.
  3. The meaningful life - this entails focusing one’s energies and resources on a cause that is greater than oneself. It also involves finding purpose or meaning in life.

Positive Psychology Life

In more recent years, Seligman expanded his theory by suggesting that well-being has five (as opposed to three) measurable components: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. This is referred to as the PERMA model of well-being, PERMA being an acronym for each of the five components.

Three of the components in the PERMA model - positive emotion, engagement, and meaning - were derived from Seliman’s original Authentic Happiness theory. By adding relationships as another component, Seligman acknowledged that significant others, social interaction and a feeling of belonging are all essential to an individual’s well-being. The fifth component - accomplishment - indicates that well-being also involves a drive to achieve one’s goals and to master various skills and tasks.

Applications of Seligman’s Theories

The aim of positive psychologists like Seligman is not simply to identify the factors that contribute to well-being. They also endeavor to enhance the well-being of individuals by developing and promoting practical applications of the theories and principles in the field. Some of the areas in which positive psychology is being applied are:

Psychotherapy and counseling - Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness has been used as a framework for understanding and treating clinical depression. Various techniques and forms of therapy have also been derived from, or influenced by, studies in the field of positive psychology. These include well-being therapy, mindfulness-based therapies, quality of life therapy and positive psychotherapy.

Education - Positive psychology principles can help teachers to focus more on encouraging and celebrating the strengths and talents of their students, and less on penalizing them for their mistakes and weaknesses. In some places, the positive psychology movement has also led to a consideration of how schools can be made into happy places that foster optimal development.

The workplace - Seligman’s PERMA model can be used by employers and human resource managers to determine the level of well-being of employees. It can also be utilized for pre-employment screening purposes. When positive psychology principles are applied in the workplace, employees often display increased engagement and commitment, as well as better individual performance.

Life coaching - The knowledge of human strengths derived from positive psychology can be used to inform coaching interventions. By applying such knowledge, life coaches can help to maximize their client’s potential and guide them towards achieving their personal goals.

Healthcare - Positive psychology interventions are now being developed for use in the healthcare industry. One aim of such interventions is to increase positive emotions and traits such as optimism, since preliminary research suggests that these can enhance physical well-being.

Criticisms of Seligman’s Theories

Several critics have argued against Seligman’s learned helplessness model of depression. For example, some have noted that depressed individuals often engage in self-blame - they tend to blame themselves for failures and negative circumstances in their life. According to critics, this contradicts Seligman’s claim that depressed people believe they are helpless. Instead, it suggests that they do believe they have control but that things still turn out negatively despite their best efforts.

The entire field of positive psychology has also been criticized on several levels. First, some argue that the ideas promoted by Seligman and other positive psychologists are not entirely new. Humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers also did extensive work on positive aspects of human experience. In fact, Maslow was the one who coined the term ‘positive psychology’ long before Seligman began his studies in the area. However, the work of these humanistic forerunners has largely been ignored by positive psychologists, an approach which some critics believe is unfortunate as it only serves to limit the scope of the field.

Positive psychologists often claim that their field is based on solid empirical evidence. In fact, this is one of the main features they claim distinguishes them from humanistic psychologists. However, positive psychologists who work in applied fields have actually been criticized for being too quick to implement interventions that do not have solid empirical backing. In many cases, these interventions are based on preliminary findings that have not been thoroughly examined.

Other common criticisms of positive psychology are that:

  • It ignores the negative aspects of life and disregards the value of negative emotions.
  • Most of the research has been conducted in Western countries, so the findings are culturally biased.
  • Too much emphasis is placed on the individual, at the expense of studying organizations, communities and other social groups.
  • Not enough attention is given to the impact of individual differences; results are often presented as if they apply equally well to everyone.

Martin Seligman's Books, Accomplishments and Awards

Martin Seligman books

Martin Seligman has authored 20 books and more than 250 scholarly papers. Some of his books have been translated into 20 different languages and are bestsellers in several countries.

A few of Seligman’s most popular books include:

  • Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. (1975)
  • Abnormal Psychology. (1984)
  • Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (1991)
  • What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. (1993)
  • The Optimistic Child: Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience. (1996)
  • Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. (2002)
  • Can Happiness be Taught? (2004)
  • Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004)
  • Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. (2011)
  • The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. (2018)

(Flourish is arguably his most popular. You can read a review on this Reddit post!)

A few of his most significant articles include:

  • "Research in Clinical Psychology." The G. Stanley Hall Lecture Series 9 (1989):65-96.
  • "Science as an Ally of Practice." American Psychologist Special Issue: Outcome Assessment of Psychotherapy 51 (1996): 1072-1079.
  • "Treatment Becomes Prevention and Treatment." Prevention and Treatment 1 (2), (1998): np.
  • "Positive Psychology, Positive Prevention, and Positive Therapy." Handbook of Positive Psychology. Eds. C.R. Snyder & Shane J. Lopez. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. 3-9.
  • "Positive Psychotherapy." (With Tayyab Rashid and Acacia C. Parks) American Psychologist 61.8 (2006): 774-788.

Martin Seligman has also received a number of awards throughout his long and distinguished career. Some of his awards and accomplishments are listed below:

  • Awarded an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in Sweden (1989)
  • William James Fellow Award for Contributions to Basic Science (1991)
  • MERIT Award of the National Institute of Mental Health (1991)
  • Distinguished Contribution Award for Basic Research with Applied Relevance from the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology (1992)
  • James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award for Applications of Psychological Knowledge (1995)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award of the Society for Research in Psychopathology (1997)
  • Awarded an honorary doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Professional Psychology (1997)
  • Elected President of the American Psychological Association (1998)
  • Awarded an honorary doctorate from Complutense University of Madrid (2003)
  • American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution (2006)
  • Awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of East London (2008)
  • Tang Award for Lifetime Achievement in Psychology (2014)
  • American Psychological Association (APA) Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology (2017)

Personal Life

While at Princeton, Seligman met and fell in love with Kerry Mueller, a student at Bryn Mawr College. He used his car privileges as the captain of the bridge team to visit her on weekends. Mueller was the first woman to return Seligman’s affections. The couple got married in 1964, one day before Seligman graduated from Princeton.

Martin Seligman and Kerry Mueller had two children together. However the couple divorced in 1978. Seligman admits that he became a bit of a womanizer in the years that followed. He eventually fell in love with Mandy McCarthy, a student in the UPENN psychology graduate program.

Mandy McCarthy had left London specifically to study with Seligman. She was impressed with his unique approach to treating depression. Mandy and Martin began dating, despite the fact that Martin is 17 years older. After getting married, they raised seven children, five of whom were home-schooled. The couple also has four grandchildren.

Is Martin Seligman Alive Today?

Today, Martin Seligman is the Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center and Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the UPenn. He is also Director of the Penn Master of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP). In his spare time, Seligman enjoys good food, wine, gardening, and spending time with family.


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Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, March). Martin Seligman Biography - Contributions To Psychology. Retrieved from

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