Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology

May 31, 2018

Martin Seligman, renowned pioneer of positive psychology, explains that happiness does not always depend on our social status, religion or physical beauty. Happiness is actually a unique combination of what he called “distinctive strengths”, such as a sense of humanity, temperance, persistence and the ability to lead a meaningful life.

To speak of Martin Seligman is to speak of a new era in psychology. It was in the 90’s when, as president of the American Psychological Association (APA), he gave a lecture to address something he considered important: psychology needed to take a new step. We needed to study human happiness from a scientific perspective. Then people could live more fulfilling lives.

“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.”
-Martin Seligman-

Up until then, most psychological studies had focused on addressing mental illnesses and their treatments. In fact, Seligman himself is best known for his work on learned helplessness.

However, as always happens at some point in our lives, something happened that suddenly forced him to reflect deeply. He explains it in his book “The Optimistic Child“.

One morning, his daughter Nikki, who was 6 years old, was playing in the yard with some leaves. The girl was yelling and running all over, full of enthusiasm and energy. However, her father, Martin Seligman couldn’t work with all that noise. He couldn’t help it; he ended up yelling at her to be quiet.

After this, the little girl, with maturity unusual for her age, told him that she felt like screaming and crying. His reprimand made her want to cry like she did when she was younger. But she was not going to give in. She knew that she was no longer a baby, and therefore she was going to control herself.

She also told him that since she had already learned not to let herself be carried away by whining, she also had to control her bad temper. That way she “would be a little older”. That little speech by his daughter changed Martin Seligman’s life.




Martin Seligman.

Martin Seligman and positive psychology

Martin Seligman was a pioneer of positive psychology. But the term itself was coined by Abraham Maslow. Maslow, though, formulated his theories in a very intuitive way and with hardly any empirical and methodological evidence. He left his interesting legacy in the hands of a new generation of psychologists who, beginning in the 90’s, have been creating a school in the field of happiness.

The psychologists who took the baton, including Seligman himself, Ed Diener and Mihaly Csiskzenmihalyi, are diving into the study of positive emotions from a rigorously scientific perspective. They want to find out what processes, dynamics and situations can most impact our health, performance and overall satisfaction with life. Also, something that Martin Seligman emphasized at the time is that the aim should be to teach people to be happier.

Also based on Confucius, Mencius and Aristotle’s notions of happiness, along with modern theories on motivation, his conclusion was that happiness can be built by working on three very specific aspects.

Positive psychology.

1. The pleasant life

Perhaps if you hear the word “pleasant” a rather hedonistic concept comes to mind, like a life oriented towards mere pleasure, no greater aspirations. But that’s not what Martin Seligman means.

  • A pleasant life consists of encouraging positive emotions and making them last.
  • How? First, we need to cover our basic needs. These are the first steps of Maslow’s pyramid: food, security, affiliation, and recognition.
  • Likewise, it is important to find a balance between our past, our present and our future.
  • For this Seligman proposes the following:
    • We must be grateful and know how to forgive what happened in the past.
    • It is necessary to know how to deal with negative emotions of the present. We need to develop mindfulness and new ways of being happy in the present.
    • We will also look at the future with hope and optimism.

2. The good life

Enjoying a truly good life is not as easy as we think at first. Happiness is not always synonymous with wealth, power or social success. Happiness is reaching our potential, to feel fuller, freer, and happier.

Martin Seligman created a classification system of human strengths with Dr. Christopher Peterson, an expert in the field of hope and optimism. The objective of this system was to determine precisely what we should work on every day to improve that potential. They are the following:

Human virtues

  1. Wisdom and knowledge
  2. Courage
  3. Love and humanity
  4. Justice
  5. Temperance
  6. Spirituality and transcendence

Personal strengths

  • Wisdom and knowledge
    • Curiosity and interest in the world.
    • Love for knowledge and learning.
    • Judgment, critical thinking, open-mindedness.
    • Ingenuity, originality, practical intelligence.
    • Perspective.
  • Courage
    • Bravery.
    • Perseverance and diligence.
    • Integrity, honesty, authenticity.
    • Vitality and passion.
  • Humanity
    • Love, attachment, capacity to love and be loved.
    • Sympathy, kindness, generosity.
    • Emotional, personal and social intelligence.
    • Justice, civic strengths.
    • Citizenship, civility, loyalty, teamwork.
    • Sense of justice, equity.
    • Leadership.
  • Moderation.
    • Ability to forgive, mercy.
    • Modesty, humility.
    • Prudence, discretion, caution.
    • Self-control, self-regulation.
  • Transcendence.
    • Appreciation of beauty and excellence, capacity for amazement.
    • Gratitude.
    • Hope, optimism, projection towards the future.
    • Sense of humor.
    • Spirituality, faith, religious sense.

“Psychology is much bigger than just medicine, or fixing unhealthy things. It’s about education, work, marriage – it’s even about sports. What I want to do is see psychologists working to help people build strengths in all these domains”.

-Martin Seligman-


A couple hugging.

3. The meaningful life

The meaningful life is closely related to the peak of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid. This is where we use the virtues and strengths we developed to contribute to other people’s happiness. It’s altruism. Seligman defines this as the exercise of goodness, the art of knowing how to elevate ourselves beyond mere personal pleasure to put ourselves at the service of those around us.

To conclude, positive psychology continues to have an important and inspiring place in our society. However, the approach has been criticized. There is no shortage of naysayers and those who remind Seligman that reality is too complex to fit this model. They say that labeling happiness as “positive” implies emotions such as sadness, anger or frustration. are “negative”. They don’t want their transformational power to be overlooked.

Be that as it may, Martin Seligman is one of the most eminent psychologists in today’s world, and his latest book “Homo Prospectus” is still more evidence.

Bibliographic references

Seligman, Martin (2011) La auténtica felicidad. Madrid: Zeta Bolsillo

Seligman, Martin EP (1996). The Optimistic Child: Programa comprobado para proteger a los niños de la depresión y construir resiliencia para toda la vida. Nueva York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Seligman, Martin (2012) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. Houghton Mifflin