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The power of a positive thinker

His goal is to advance the well-being of the world - one sector at a time.

Martin Seligman, a Penn psychologist, helped redefine psychology, first with the concept of learned helplessness and then with positive psychology. His epiphany: that psychologists should study not only what makes people mentally ill but what makes some people happier than average. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Martin Seligman, a Penn psychologist, helped redefine psychology, first with the concept of learned helplessness and then with positive psychology. His epiphany: that psychologists should study not only what makes people mentally ill but what makes some people happier than average. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

No one could accuse Marty Seligman of thinking small.

The University of Pennsylvania psychology professor earned the respect of his peers studying the equivalent of depression in dogs, but it is his more recent fascination with the flip side of sadness - how to get life right - that has made this serious man a pop-psych power hitter. At 67, he is using his academic reputation and his formidable sales skills to reform, well, just about everything. His premise: that we've spent too much time trying to fix what's wrong and not nearly enough figuring out how to make more things right.

Let's start with the Army, an unlikely target for the branch of inquiry that Seligman fathered: positive psychology. Instead of mental illness, positive psychology focuses on what makes some of us stronger, happier, and more satisfied than the norm. It involves learning to think differently about both good and bad events and appreciating that there is more than one path to an emotionally satisfying life.

Such touchy-feely stuff would seem out of place among people who wear heavy boots and fatigues.

But there was Seligman at Penn last summer, explaining to a group of sergeants the audaciously ambitious Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program that their generals had just decided to undertake. Ultimately, 1.1 million soldiers will receive training based on positive psychology. The Army hopes it will make them more resilient - less prone to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Seligman is short and a little paunchy, but not soft. Built more like a butcher than a professor, he paced before the impressively fit soldiers with a rough energy that conveyed both physical vitality and mental restlessness. The product of an unhappy stint in an Albany, N.Y., military school, he easily commanded the room's attention. The sergeants applauded loudly when he said they would teach their fellow soldiers better coping skills.

He talked about blessings, signature strengths, and support for spouses' successes, but his manner was disarmingly rational, backed by charts and studies. His deep, authoritative voice - possibly his best physical attribute - lent his words just the right gravity. He confidently walked the line between grand and grandiose as he pronounced: "We're after creating an indomitable Army."

Changing military culture would be a lifetime's work for most psychologists, but it's just part of what Seligman is up to. He's expanding the Positive brand to education, health, and neuroscience, and still hopes to take it to corporations. Then there's plain old positive psychology, for which he has the grandest goal of all.

He talked about that in Philadelphia last year at the first World Congress on Positive Psychology. It drew 1,500. While most countries measure their wealth in dollars, some positive psychologists advocate measuring well-being, a broad concept that goes well beyond the transitory pleasures so many associate with happiness. People at the top of the well-being scale are said to be flourishing.

Only 10 percent to 18 percent of the world's population is flourishing, Seligman said. Not enough. His goal is to make the world happier.

"I believe it is within our capacity that by the year 2051 that 51 percent of the human population will be flourishing," he said. "That is my charge. That is our aim."

Psychology rock star

James Coyne, a fellow Penn psychologist, recalled meeting Seligman in California in the late 1970s. "You can be a psychologist like a rock star," he contended Seligman had told him, "and have fame and money, and that's what I intend to do."

Decades later, Seligman, who said he had never even thought such a thing and hadn't met Coyne until 1996, is indeed a rock star in his world. A former president of the American Psychological Association, he has won awards as a serious scientist, but also gets shelf space in chain book stores. He has given speeches around the world and shared the stage in Australia with the Dalai Lama.

He has written or cowritten 25 books - textbooks, and more accessible works like Learned Optimism and What You Can Change and What You Can't. His Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment has been translated into 17 languages.

While many academics settle for a cluttered cubbyhole of an office, his Positive Psychology Center merits a floor in a modern building on the fringes of the Penn campus. Seligman, his second wife, Mandy, and the youngest three of their five children live in a rambling, three-story mansion once occupied by Eugene Ormandy. A large portrait of Seligman hangs over the mantel, a decorating choice some critics see as a sign of his sizable ego. But, overall, the house is furnished for comfort, not ostentation, and much of it is devoted to home-schooling the kids so they and Mandy can accompany Seligman on his travels.

Not a bad vantage point for considering the good life.

Acolytes gush about his brilliance. Friends and former students call him "inspiring" and "visionary." Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a Yale University psychology professor, who studied at Penn with Seligman, said of his communication skills: "He is to psychology what Barack Obama is to political speeches."

Others, though, deride positive psychology as "happiology" and worry that some adherents - especially life coaches - are taking it too far and too fast for the science. Doubters worry that negative feelings and thoughts, which enrich life and stimulate change, will become overly stigmatized.

"We didn't get into 9/11 because of too much pessimism," said Barbara Held, a Bowdoin psychology professor, who wrote Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining. "We didn't have the Great Recession because of too much pessimism. These catastrophes didn't happen because too many people were thinking about what could go wrong."

Peculiar prophet

Seligman is an odd candidate for prophet of positivity.

He is not temperamentally sunny. He is a serious, relentless thinker not given to small talk. "He never seems to get intellectually tired," said Christopher Peterson, a University of Michigan psychologist, who is an expert on character and has worked closely with Seligman.

Seligman is not a natural optimist, by which he means someone who tends to take credit for his successes, but not defeats, and sees setbacks as limited and temporary. (He has a maddening penchant for redefining words.)

Nor is he a life-of-the-party type. He has a taste for good wine and food, but devotes his spare time to his family, baseball, his garden, and hours and hours of online bridge.

He is not always a great people person, though friends say Mandy, whom he married in 1988; success; and his work on positive psychology have mellowed him. Detractors, who said they were too frightened by his power to speak publicly, said he could be narcissistic, controlling, and hard on the feelings of others, particularly those who didn't meet his standards.

What Seligman is is an obsessively focused workaholic and exceptional marketer. He keeps it simple, only lightly peppering his speeches with the science that he says separates him from the long line of positive thinkers who preceded him.

"He manages to convey the sense that what he's about to tell you really matters, so, damn it, you should pay attention . . .," said Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College psychologist and longtime friend. "He is a commanding presence."

Plus, Seligman has "learned how to talk to the public with labels and catchphrases that are easily comprehended and remembered."

He calls people "sunspots" and "black holes." At a meeting at Penn on positive health, he talked repeatedly about "Pachelbels," one great idea that can survive centuries - like one-hit wonder Johann Pachelbel's Canon, a song still popular more than 300 years after it was composed. "If you have a Pachelbel in mind, then I just want to encourage you to do it," he told fellow academics to nary a rolled eye.

His books and website offer easy tests for analyzing thinking styles and mental health skills.

This ability to connect has made him a grant-getting phenom. The Army, he said, is giving Penn $25 million to $30 million for its soldier training. He persuaded Australia to pay a million dollars for teaching teachers about positive education, which research shows can reduce depression and improve learning. (The Australian press gave Seligman a hard time for bringing an entourage bigger than the prime minister's.) The Robert Wood Johnson and John Templeton Foundations have been big funders.

"It seems impossible, but sometimes it looks to me as if [funders] give him more than he asks for," said Ray Fowler, a former APA president and Seligman's mentor.

Many professors study one thing, often one very small thing, their whole professional lives. Seligman - a serial intellectual entrepreneur - has jumped from one big idea to another. Even before positive psychology, he had three big ideas, any one of which would have cemented his scientific reputation, said Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University. There was preparedness, the concept that we are born prewired to fear certain things - such as, say, spiders but not electrical outlets. Next was the safety signal, the idea that certain people or things signify safety for others. And, finally, the big one: learned helplessness, the idea that animals and people can learn to be helpless or depressed after encountering uncontrollable negative events. After that came all the positives.

Positive psychology was not Seligman's idea. A lot of people were studying aspects of it long before he coined the umbrella term and created a new subfield. Fellow psychologists use words like popularized and legitimized to describe his role.

Aaron Beck is a Philadelphia psychiatrist much respected for creating cognitive therapy, an approach to mental illness treatment that involves changing thinking and has much in common with Seligman's ideas about optimism. Beck met Seligman when Seligman was a doctoral candidate and was struck by "his brilliance."

"Positive psychology was in the air, and Marty is terrific at getting ideas that have not been fully developed, grabbing hold of them, and crystallizing them," he said. He can "grab an idea that's ready to be born and deliver it."

Schwartz said part of Seligman's appeal was his intellectual courage - his willingness to risk being wrong. It's too early to tell how much of his scientific approach to positive thinking will stick, but, Schwartz said, it is "potentially a complete game changer."

Seligman's zeal for the subject also makes him a great salesman. Teaching about depression, he said, was a downer. This is fun. But it's more than that. It's a mission. A legacy.

A tough adolescence

Marty Seligman believes that many therapists have made a huge error: People are not driven by the past, he says, but pulled by the future.

Still, it's clear that his past influenced both his work and his ambition.

Seligman had a tough adolescence. His father, a smart man who had taken a "secure civil service" job, suffered a massive stroke that permanently disabled him at 49, an event that fueled his 13-year-old son's interest in helplessness. Seligman, whose parents wanted him to be a "world beater," was in his first year at Albany Academy, a private military school populated mostly by far-wealthier boys. As he writes in Learned Optimism, Seligman felt "rejected and alone." He was keenly aware of class differences and says now he felt "déclassé."

Paul Monaco, a classmate and close friend, said Seligman had never lost his outsider mentality. "I think he still might inwardly struggle with being accepted," said Monaco, a filmmaker and film professor at Montana State University.

Monaco also came from a family of modest means, and his father died of a heart attack shortly before Seligman's had his stroke. They bonded over their loss, Monaco said, but they've never talked about it.

"He's still a man," Monaco said. "That's territory we've never explored and probably never will."

Eighteen years ago, Seligman told an Inquirer interviewer that his father's illness had left him with a "whole frozen sea" over his emotions. Now, he sees the ordeal as a "real important shadow" on his life.

Seligman found surer footing at Princeton University, where his brain power proved more important than his pedigree. He was a philosophy major and, in senior year, faced a difficult decision: whether to go to graduate school in philosophy or psychology, or become a professional bridge player.

Bridge was tempting, but Seligman, who was captain of the Princeton bridge team, said the cards did not "fly off his hands" as they did for the best players. Philosophy, a professor told him, was good training - for something else. He knew he could excel at psychology. "I'm a natural at it, and it's not a game. It's about something that might really help people."

Seligman still loves bridge. He reached the rank of Diamond Life Master with the American Contract Bridge League last year, a distinction that puts him in the top 2 percent of players. At bridge, Schwartz said, Seligman "wants to do the brilliant thing" that will impress others. "The problem is he's not as good a bridge player as he is a psychologist, so most of the time, when he does these things, they don't work."

Seligman married his first wife, Kerry Mueller, a Bryn Mawr College grad, in 1964, the day before he graduated from Princeton. They divorced in 1978, after having two children. His ex, now a Unitarian Universalist minister, declined to talk about Seligman, saying it would be "best for my character" if she didn't. He doesn't have much to say about their marriage either.

Over the next decade, Seligman acknowledged, he was a bit of a womanizer. "I was looking for a wife," he explained. He found one in his psychology graduate program - before, he said, such a relationship was considered taboo.

Seventeen years younger, Mandy McCarthy had come to Penn from London specifically to study with Seligman. His approach to depression, which involved learning to think differently about bad events, appealed to her.

"I saw a lot of doom and gloom and pessimism at home," she said as she sipped coffee in the couple's no-frills kitchen. "I saw a lot of people that were filled with 'I can'ts.' . . . When I saw learned helplessness, it just struck a chord with me."

At 50, Mandy Seligman is very thin and blond, in a mussed, comfortable-with-herself kind of way. She's obviously proud of her husband's success, his charisma, but talked most animatedly about his flexibility. "He's very adaptable," she said. "He can adapt to new situations whether they're emotional or physical." If he's having trouble getting through to one of the kids, "he's very good at just stepping back and trying it a different way."

Seligman, who is a more guarded interview subject, said he had married Mandy because she was easy to be with and "she said yes."

He imagined a jet-set life of travel, fine dining, and opera. Instead, Mandy, who studied child development, became a stay-at-home mom who taught the kids - now ages 6 to 21 - wherever their father was. Their oldest daughter had flown 100 times by her first birthday.

Mandy Seligman said their partnership allowed each to do what he or she enjoyed. He works, plays bridge, and gardens. She tends to the children and takes pictures of his flowers and the places they visit, photos that adorn their house.

"A good marriage is one in which you both support each other, but you become a better version of yourself," she said, "and I think the truth is, we both become better people by being married to each other."

Helplessness to optimism

Seligman began his academic career as a pessimist studying dogs in a lab. After enduring shocks they could not escape, some dogs stopped trying. They had learned that their actions were useless, he posited. They behaved much as depressed humans do. Learned helplessness became an animal model for depression and is considered a seminal insight in the field.

Later on, though, Seligman grew more intrigued by the dogs who did not become helpless, no matter what was done to them. What was it about those dogs and their human equivalent that protected them from life's travails?

Asked about his mistakes, Seligman said he now questioned learned helplessness because of the work of Steven Maier, who studied the dogs with him at Penn and, at the University of Colorado, investigates how brain chemistry affects behavior.

Maier said he and Seligman had debated whether the key factor for the dogs was learning helplessness or its opposite: mastery. Maier's recent work with rats shows that the key reason some animals were apathetic was that they had never learned they could have control.

Seligman said Maier's theory may be true for rats, although the helpless ones remain a good model for human depression, because they have the same symptoms. Learned-helplessness studies with people still hold up: Unlike the rats, the people had indeed learned that events were uncontrollable. "The default response to adversity [in humans] is not helplessness," Seligman said.

So, it's not much of a mistake really. Plus, mastery would seem a first cousin to learned optimism, the concept that emerged when Seligman tried to explain why some dogs and people overcome adversity.

Optimists, he said, generally lead healthier, more successful lives than pessimists - those who see problems as "permanent and pervasive" and their own fault. People can be taught to see things more positively. He's focusing now on a more nuanced view of the good life that urges people to evaluate their "well-being," a combination of positive emotions (what most of us think of as happiness and good feelings), accomplishments, good relationships, and a sense of meaning and purpose.

Much of positive psychology is just figuring out what differentiates people who are unusually happy, content, or mentally healthy. But the next logical step is to move people higher on the positive continuum. Seligman believes we can improve our lives by identifying and using our best qualities, arguing with our inner naysayers, and learning to see setbacks as temporary.

Two simple interventions have proved to increase happiness and decrease depression for six months. One is to write down three good things that happened to you each day for a week and explain why. Another is to use one of your top five signature strengths - you can identify these at - in a new way each day for a week.

Seligman gives a nod to the value of pessimists; you want your pilot and your chief financial officer to think about what could go wrong. Negative emotions are important. "They have evolved," he said, "for good reasons: fear to signal danger, anger to signal trespass, sadness to signal loss." Two of his heroes - Lincoln and Churchill - were famous depressives.

But some critics see pessimism more positively.

In her book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Julie Norem, a Wellesley College psychologist, argues that defensive pessimists, people who think through all the bad things that could happen and what they might do about them, do just fine. In fact, they become more anxious when they try to think positively.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a cell-biologist-turned-social-critic, skewers Seligman in her latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, for insisting on conducting an interview with her among the Monets at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and describing happiness in a too-simple equation.

(Seligman was no more impressed with her science than she was with his. "A 1968 Ph.D. in biology," he said, "is not much help with modern statistical analyses.")

Like Held, who disapproves of the "tyranny" of positive attitude, Ehrenreich sees the positivity movement as constricting.

"Positive thinking did not abolish the need for constant vigilance; it only turned that vigilance inward," she wrote. "Instead of worrying that one's roof might collapse or one's job be terminated, positive thinking encourages us to worry about the negative expectations themselves. . . . It ends up imposing a mental discipline as exacting as that of the Calvinism it replaced."

Held said one size does not fit all. "I'm a pretty happy person," she said. "I have a pretty good life. . . . I'm a high-anxiety person, and I'm a defensive pessimist. These things are not incompatible."

In health, the emphasis on positive thinking can be particularly distressing. The widespread belief that emotions determine the course of illness can leave people feeling responsible not only for their sickness but also for its outcome. While the evidence for the impact of attitude is stronger for some diseases, particularly those where behavior makes a difference, Penn's Coyne said his research on head and neck cancer patients had found no connection between positive thinking and death.

"There's no evidence," he said, "that people who go to support groups or express their emotions in a particular way live any longer than people who don't."

Mission: Resilience

Seligman once thought positive psychology might find a home in the corporate world, but the emphasis on the bottom line proved too powerful. Then he thought education might embrace his proposals, but "tremendous vested interests" and low budgets stood in the way.

"I think it's going to turn out to be the military," he said. "Their mission is actually creating resilient human beings."

Gen. Rhonda Cornum, who runs the new program, is the embodiment of what some experts call post-traumatic growth. Shot down and captured during the Persian Gulf War, she thinks the experience made her a better wife, mother, and leader. The compact, sinewy woman said Seligman had only taught her a new vocabulary for what she already did, but she knew other soldiers needed what he was offering.

"I was pretty immediately convinced," she said.

The Army's new soldiers, she said, needed to be taught better coping skills before they encountered something traumatic. Soldiers are seeing combat more often than in the past. Modern kids are growing up without experiencing much discomfort, and they have very little experience with death. That leaves them ill-prepared for pain. "Their idea of trauma," Cornum said, "is when they lose their remote."

The new program will teach soldiers the same skills students in positive-education programs have learned, focusing on four areas: emotional, social, family, and spiritual. For example, they'll learn how to avoid catastrophizing, or letting their imaginations race to worst-case scenarios. They'll learn how to play to their strengths and develop closer relationships.

One approach Seligman likes is "active, constructive responding," a type of conversation that lets people relive good events by talking about them in detail. When your wife gets a promotion, don't just say, "That's great." Ask her exactly how it happened.

Before Comprehensive Soldier Fitness was announced last year, Seligman's relationship with the military earned him unwanted attention and criticism from peers. Author Jane Mayer revealed in her 2008 book, The Dark Side, that Seligman had lectured in California in 2002 at the Navy's SERE school (the national Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program). One of the organizers, she said, was Kirk Hubbard, the CIA's director of Behavioral Sciences Research. Seligman has said the audience included two psychologists Mayer linked to harsh post-9/11 interrogations. Mayer said one of them had used the principles of learned helplessness to question military detainees.

Seligman still bristles at the mention of the SERE meeting, and he e-mails his standard response. He said that he had talked about his work in the context of Americans resisting torture and interrogation, and that he strongly disapproved of torture.

Mandy Seligman said the incident was "hurtful" to her husband. "Marty . . . believes in America. He wants to help the troops. He was so proud of helping the troops. To have that turned into something else was really painful."

Seligman said he would do the speech again. "If my nation calls again," he said, "I will again respond positively."

The boy who didn't fit in at military school now finds that he likes drill sergeants better than many fellow professors. He said he was doing the resilience project pro bono, out of patriotism and because it would make his parents proud.

"Part of it is sheer admiration of what [soldiers] do," he said. "They're the people who defend us and make democracy possible, and they do it at huge personal sacrifice."

The soldier fitness program is a massive test of positive psychology principles. But Seligman doesn't worry about whether the program will fail. "I regard all this as a hypothesis to be tested," he said.

"Reaching beyond where you are is really important. I don't mind being wrong, and I don't mind changing my mind. It is a great adventure. It is nice finally to have people who run things take these ideas seriously."

Success, though, would be a chance to make the kind of big difference that matters to him. "This is the Salk vaccine of psychology, if it works," he said. "This is the great event of my career."

A tricky question

What makes Marty Seligman happy?

This is not an easy question. Seligman's concept of happiness is not simple, maybe because he's still not what most people would call happy, and that's OK with him.

Consider his response to a question about his garden. Might it be a place where he practices the precepts of positive psychology, savoring beauty and nature's renewal?

"I'm out there weeding and cursing and getting ripped up by thorns," he said. He does like showing off his flowers, but doesn't think that justifies all the work. Which brought him to another idea. People think we work for the reward that comes at the end or that maybe we like working.

But "there is no state additional to the working, which is liking," he said. That took him to his dogs: What dogs do - chasing squirrels - is what they are. And to Aristotle. "Aristotle tried to talk about grace in a dance, that grace doesn't come at the end of the dance," he said. "It is part and parcel of a dance well danced."

He gives Mandy the credit for their happy family. "I don't think I've ever mattered much as a father," he said. He wasn't close to his father, "nor do I think my children are all that close to me, any of them." He said he was an "adequate" father and good provider. He said this without regret, as if intrigued by his own life and at peace with his strengths, shortcomings, and idiosyncrasies.

He works at positivity. He does the three-good-things exercise daily, uses his signature strengths, and puts a lot of effort into active-constructive responding.

Asked when she has seen him happy, Mandy described a birthday dinner at the Four Seasons in August with the whole family. Seligman asked everyone to answer some questions on a 0-to-5 scale. How happy was yesterday? How meaningful? How pleasant? And so on. All the answers were 5s. "I don't think that was just to make Daddy happy," Mandy said. "I think the kids are really happy."

Her husband told her it was one of the best presents he'd had.

She thinks he's happy when he's working, especially when the work is going well.

But Seligman, the language quibbler, said he was rarely happy, as in joyful. It happened recently when one of his sons, a high school junior, pinned an opponent in wrestling. His happiest moment was the end of Game 6 of the 1980 World Series, when the Phillies won the championship. "That was the most joyous moment of my life, and I was very surprised by how I felt about it."

Seligman puts himself in the bottom 30 percent for positive emotions. "A life can be perfectly good and perfectly satisfactory with no positive feeling," he said.

That brings us to well-being, the subject of his next book and what matters to him now. Good feelings are part of it, but so are domains where Seligman thinks he excels. "My life is largely run around meaning and purpose now," he said.

And he is optimistic that his ideas can change the world. "That," he said, "is the point of it, as far as I'm concerned."

To read previous profiles in the Defining Lives series, go to