“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 […] tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback […] they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.” – Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, 1991.
This is the crux of the life-long research and study conducted by Martin Seligman, a leading American psychologist, father of positive psychology, motivational speaker and pioneer of the “learned helplessness” theory. Born in Albany, New York in 1942, Seligman graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1964, earning an A.B. degree. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1967 from University of Pennsylvania. He became a part of the faculty at Cornell University as Assistant Professor and later returned to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. During and after his doctorate, he worked on a theory of “learned helplessness” which he explained to be a psychological ailment wherein a person perceives himself powerless in a situation. They usually give up rather than fight for control. This, he found, was the root of depression and his research led to prevention and treatment of depression.
In 1995, Martin Seligman had a chance conversation with his daughter that changed his perspective and the focus of his research. While weeding the lawn, Seligman became irritated and shouted at his daughter. Her daughter told him that she had stopped whining since her fifth birthday, and if she could give it up, he could stop being grumpy. Seligman at that time realized that clinical psychology only focused on treatment of unhappy state of mind. Psychology was also needed for fostering and propagation of healthy minds. He wanted to find out what makes people content and happy. His work with Christopher Peterson led to the founding of Positive Psychology, a field of study that examines healthy traits in a person, positive emotions such as happiness, strength of character and optimism. He gave six basic virtues namely wisdom, valor, kindness, righteousness, temperance, and transcendence whose cultivation in a person boosted mental well-being. At first, it was a very inexact science with few experimental evidence, but his efforts has led to its growth over the past two decades.
Dr. Martin Seligman is the 13th most frequently quoted psychologist in elementary psychology texts. In 1996, Dr. Seligman was selected as President of American Psychological Association by the highest number of popular votes in the history of the organization. Presently, he is Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania as well as Director of the Positive Psychology Center. His writings have been translated into more than fifteen languages and have been best sellers both in US and abroad. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Reader’s Digest, Parents, Fortune, Family Circle, and many other popular magazines. He has appeared on numerous television and radio shows speaking on topics related to science and practice of psychology. In addition to psychology, he has written articles on such wide-ranging issues as education, violence, and therapy. He has addressed and inspired educators, industrialist, parents, military veterans and mental health professionals around the world.