Martin Seligman Biography

The Father of Modern Positive Psychology

"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.

Best Known For

Early Life

Martin Seligman was born on August 12, 1942, in Albany, New York. After graduating high school, he attended Princeton University where he earned an A.B. degree in 1964. In 1967, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.


After working as an assistant professor at Cornell University, he returned to teach psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. During this time, he began researching learned helplessness.

Seligman discovered that when people feel they have no control over their situation, they tend to give up rather than fight for control. His research on helplessness and pessimism had important implications in the prevention and treatment of depression.


Seligman's work researching learned pessimistic attitudes eventually led him to develop an interest in optimism, an interest that would eventually lead to the emergence of a new branch of psychology. In 1995, an important conversation with his daughter, Nikki, helped change the direction of his research.

While weeding in the garden, Seligman became perturbed and yelled at his daughter. In a keynote address to the North Carolina Psychological Association, Seligman described how his daughter sternly reminded him that she had not whined once since she had vowed to give up whining on her fifth birthday. If she was capable of giving up whining, she reasoned, her father should be able to "stop being such a grouch."

APA President

In 1996, Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association (APA) by the largest vote in the organization's history. Each APA president is asked to choose a central theme for his or her term and Seligman selected positive psychology.

Rather than focus on what ails us, he wanted mental health to be about more than just the absence of illness. Instead, Seligman strove to usher in a new era of psychology that also concentrates on what makes people feel happy and fulfilled. Today, Seligman is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Contributions to Psychology

Influenced by earlier humanist thinkers like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, positive psychology has continued to grow over the past two decades. Seligman is often referred to as the father of modern positive psychology.

In Haggbloom et al.'s 2002 article on the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Seligman was ranked as the 31st most eminent psychologist in addition to being the 13th most often cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks.

Selected Publications

  • Seligman, Martin E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.
  • Seligman, Martin E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf.
  • Seligman, Martin E. P. (1993). What You Can Change and What You Can't: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf.
  • Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
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  • Haggbloom SJ, et al. The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century. Review of General Psychology. 2002:6(2),139–15.

  • Hirt R. Martin Seligman’s Journey From Learned Helplessness to Learned Happiness. The Pennsylvania Gazette. 1998.

  • Kass S. Martin E.P. Seligman Touts Positive Psychology at Smithsonian Program. Monitor on Psychology. 2000;31(9).

  • Meet Dr. Seligman. Authentic Happiness. University of Pennsylvania. 2006.

  • Wallis C. The New Science of Happiness. Time. 2005.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.