Martin Elias Peter Seligman was born August 12, 1942, in Albany, New York. As an undergraduate, he majored in philosophy at Princeton University, and he took his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania under the supervision of Richard Solomon. Except for sabbatical leaves and a brief stint teaching at Cornell University, Seligman has spent his professorial career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is professor of psychology. He is best known for his work on learned helplessness, depression, optimism, and positive psychology.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Seligman and fellow University of Pennsylvania graduate students discovered and investigated the phenomenon of learned helplessness. Animals exposed to uncontrollable aversive events later showed striking deficits in different situations; that is, they behaved helplessly. Seligman interpreted this phenomenon in cognitive terms, at the time a radical approach. He proposed that an animal that learned in one situation that its responses were independent of outcomes generalized an expectation of response-outcome independence (i.e., helplessness) to other situations. He demonstrated the same phenomenon among people, and proposed that the basic learned helplessness phenomenon might serve as a laboratory model for reactive depression.
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By the late 1970s, laboratory data suggested that the learned helplessness model did not fully account for the range of responses that people showed in response to uncontrollable events. Seligman and colleagues reformulated the theory to incorporate the causal attributions made by people for the original uncontrollable events. People’s interpretations of why the events occurred determined whether deficits did or did not follow. “Pessimistic” attributions—those to stable, global, and internal causes—produce long-lasting and pervasive deficits accompanied by a loss of self-esteem.
In the 1980s, Seligman applied the basic findings about learned helplessness and his attribution reformulation to guide investigations of the treatment and prevention of depression. Seligman and his colleagues demonstrated that cognitive therapy for depression works in part because it changes an individual’s pessimistic explanatory style, turning it in a more optimistic direction. This led to the development of a prevention program in which young people at risk for depression are taught cognitive problem-solving skills and to dispute pessimistic causal explanations. This intervention effectively prevents subsequent depression.
In the early 1990s, Seligman reframed his work on pessimism (and the negative outcomes under its sway) to focus on optimism (and positive outcomes). Seligman later dubbed this emphasis positive psychology. The underlying tenet is that psychology should be as concerned with discovering how to lead a positive, healthy, fulfilling life as it is with discovering how to remedy the disorders that trouble so many individuals. In just a few years, positive psychology has grown from a provocative label to a burgeoning field. Positive psychology promises to be a literal science of mental health, not simply a science of mental illness negated. Seligman’s most lasting contribution may prove to be his reinstitution of the psychological good life as a legitimate topic for scientific investigation and theory-guided encouragement.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.
- Martin E. P. Seligman: http://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/people/martin-ep-seligman