Martin Seligman Biography

Who Is Martin Seligman & His Legacy in Psychology

Martin Seligman Biography

Martin Seligman spent years developing and studying the theory of positive psychology. In line with it, he developed a theory on well-being that he called the PERMA model.

The model is detailed in his book Flourish, 2011, which came as a result of his long-term involvement with soldiers. It represents a template that explores how people function and what is crucial to achieving lasting happiness.

In this model, he recognizes five main features that he considers crucial for optimal well-being. These features are:

Positive Emotion – measures and assessed subjectively, and it is entirely personal.

Engagement- it depicts the presence of a flow state, i.e., a complete engagement in a pleasurable activity.

Positive Relationships – social connections.

Meaning – serving or belonging to something bigger than the individual’s needs.

Accomplishment or Achievement- it is the final outcome of an engagement that doesn’t have to include any emotions at all.

Each of these elements consists of three properties that make up the element, i.e., it optimizes the feeling of well-being, it is self-fulfilling, and it is defined and measured on its own.

Founded under professor Seligman’s leadership, the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania is the first educational program that offers a degree in positive psychology.

The program is organized into nine courses and lasts one academic year. It introduces the students to the history, theory, and research methods of positive psychology while offering application in professional settings.

Bibliography and Writings

  • Doing the Right Thing: Measuring Well Being for Public Policy. International Journal of Wellbeing Vol. 1, No. 1. (2011).
  • Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Publisher Free Press (2011).
  • What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. Publisher Knopf (2007).
  • Daedalus “Can Happiness be Taught?” Publisher MIT Press, Spring (2004).
  • Character Strengths and Virtues (with Christopher Peterson). Publisher Oxford University Press. (2004)
  • (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press (2002 and paperback edition in 2004).
  • The Optimistic Child: Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience. New York, Publisher Houghton Mifflin (1996).
  • Abnormal Psychology (Norton, 1982, 1988, 1995, with David Rosenhan)
  • Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Publisher Knopf (1991).

Martin Seligman was born on August 12, 1947, in Albany, New York, to a Jewish family. He attended public school, and then he enrolled at the Albany Academy for Boys- a private military school and was the first to complete it successfully.

Seligman showed considerable interest in humanities, so he started studying philosophy at Princeton University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1964, with the highest distinctions receiving Summa Cum Laude recognition.

After graduation, Seligman was faced with a trilemma. He had the chance to study animal experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN).

He was offered a scholarship to study analytic philosophy at Oxford University, or he had the chance to become a professional bridge player. He chose psychology as his innate drive was to help people.

While working on his Ph.D. at UPENN, he and his colleague Steve Maier developed the theory of learned helplessness, which later led to breakthroughs in the treatment of depression.

After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology, he shortly worked as an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University. However, he worked there for a brief time, and then he returned to UPENN as a psychology professor.

  • Assistant Professor in psychology at Cornell University
  • Psychology Professor at the Department of Psychology at UPENN
  • Director of the Clinical Training Program in the Department of Psychology at UPENN
  • President of the American Psychological Association for 1998
  • Founding editor-in-chief of Prevention and Treatment (APA’s electronic journal)
  • Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Director of the University’s Positive Psychology Center (founder of MAPP)

References and resources:

Who is Martin Seligman and What Does He Do?


Who is Martin Seligman and What Does He Do?

Martin Seligman Biography
Martin Seligman. Image Retrieved by URL.

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. 

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 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 more than 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 ly 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

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 well being. 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.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.


Martin Seligman: biography and theories in Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman Biography

Today there is a boom in the development and application of positive psychology as that branch of psychology in charge of the scientific study of the optimal functioning of the human being and the development of his potential and well-being, seeking his happiness.

One of the pioneers in developing this type of psychology is Martin Seligman, who is also widely known for his studies on depression and the concept of learned helplessness. This author has made, and in fact continues to make, multiple contributions to the field of psychology throughout his life. That is why in this article we will review the biography of Martin Seligman .

Brief biography of Martin Seligman

This well-known author has played an important role in the study of disorders such as depression and, more recently, that of well-being and happiness. The following is a brief summary of the stagesof his life, his theories and his major contributions to psychology.

Birth and education

Martin Elias Peter Seligman was born on August 12, 1942 in the New York state of Albany, in the United States. In Albany he would study during primary and secondary school. Once he finished his primary and secondary education, he enrolled at Princeton University in 1960 to study philosophy.

He graduated in 1964, doing so with the highest honors with the title Summa cum laude. After that, he received offers from several universities to continue his studies with them, choosing the University of Pennsylvania as the author. He studied Animal Psychology, obtaining his doctorate in psychology in 1967 .

Seligman then began a successful career as a researcher.

Professional performance and contributions to psychology

Initially, Martin Seligman was an assistant professor at Cornell University, and later at Pennsylvania University, where he rose to become a professor of psychology.

In 1980 he was appointed director of the clinical training program at the latter university, working for years in the treatment and research of depression and other disorders.

Throughout his career he made important contributions that would lead him to be widely recognized and receive multiple awards

However, the author would be aware that clinical psychology in general tends to focus only on the aspects that generate dysfunctionality and suffering of the person and treat them, , and there is no optimistic vision centered on reinforcing the elements that generate well-being . In 1990 the researcher turned his career around in order to focus on the study of happiness.

On the other hand, Seligman has developed several theories and contributions to the world of psychology. Let’s see what they were.

About depression

Throughout his years of study he would be influenced by one of his teachers, the famous psychologist Aaron Beck, from whom he would draw inspiration to study the functioning of depressive disorder.

According to his theory on depression, this condition is partly the result of a problem of perception of reality, related to the feeling of loss of control and to how causes are attributed to positive or negative experiences : the negative ones seem to be caused by oneself, and the positive ones are the result of chance and the effects of others. This idea is related to attribution theories.

Learned helplessness

After receiving his doctorate, in 1967 he began his research at the University of Pennsylvania. He would start researching with animals, specifically dogs , under a paradigm operant conditioning.

During these experiments, which used electrical stimulation, Seligman was able to observe how animals subjected to a previous experience in which they could not escape aversive stimulation stopped trying to do so even when they could have at other times, demonstrating passivity.

These experiments led to the birth of the theory of learned helplessness , which would be associated with the absence of activity typical of depressed subjects: the depressed subject has learned that his performance does not change events and has no results, so he stops acting.

This theory would be an important contribution that would allow progress in the generation of explanatory theories of different aspects of depression and work focused on combating helplessness. wise, he participated in the creation of various methods to treat this disorder confrontation and the change of negative automatic thoughts.

Presidency of the APA and the birth of Positive Psychology

In 1996, Martin Seligman was appointed president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) , a presidency that would open up new avenues of research and work for this science. His main objective during his term was to bring together theoretical and practical knowledge.

In 1998 he proposed the search for a more positive psychology, not so much centred solely on the pathological aspects of the psyche and behaviour and that sought to study the aspects that make us feel well and happy.

Thus, in the year 2000, positive psychology was founded as a scientific study of optimal human functioning, which has since contributed to its expansion, and the Manual on Virtues and Strengths of Character.

Another relevant initiative was the prevention of war or ethno-political conflict.

During 2002 he developed the theory of authentic happiness , in which he proposed the development of the strengths and characteristics to achieve it. During 2003 the Master of Applied Positive Psychology was created under his direction. From 2005 he was appointed director of the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2010 he reformulates his theory of authentic happiness, appearing the theory of well-being and the PERMA model, in which he studies what people choose to increase their level of well-being, including positive emotion, positive relationships, involvement, meaning and commitment.


During the last years Martin Seligman has made numerous publications ( Flourish, in 2011) and given different conferences.

Today, at age 75, he continues to serve as director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center and professor in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (specifically the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology). He is also director of the Master’s Program in Applied Positive Psychology and continues to serve as a consultant to various organizations.


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