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Martin Seligman Positive Psychology: Understanding the Benefits of a Positive Mindset

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Positive psychology is a relatively new field of study, with its roots in the 1990s. Considered to be the founder of positive psychology is Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is known for his research on learned helplessness, which led him to explore the opposite end of the spectrum – learned optimism. Seligman’s work in positive psychology has been groundbreaking and has influenced not only psychology but other fields such as education and business.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the study of positive human functioning and well-being. Its goal is to understand what makes life worth living and to help people lead happier and more fulfilling lives. Positive psychology focuses on topics such as happiness, gratitude, resilience, positive relationships, and meaning and purpose in life.

Martin Seligman and learned helplessness

In the 1960s, Seligman conducted research on learned helplessness. He found that dogs who had experienced inescapable shocks would eventually stop trying to escape even when given the opportunity to do so. This behaviour was similar to what he saw in people with depression, who had learned to feel helpless and unable to control their environment.

Seligman realised that he needed to find a way to help people unlearn their helplessness and become more optimistic. This led him to develop interventions that focused on building resilience and promoting a positive mindset. He found that people who were able to view negative events as temporary and specific, rather than global and permanent, were more likely to bounce back from adversity.

3 Pillars of positive psychology

Seligman identified three pillars of positive psychology that are essential to well-being:

  • Positive emotions. This includes feelings of happiness, joy, and contentment.
  • Engagement. This is a state of being fully immersed in an activity or task, often called “flow”.
  • Meaning and purpose. This refers to having a sense of direction and feeling that one’s life has value and significance.

These three pillars work together to promote overall well-being and happiness.

Benefits of positive psychology

Research has shown that positive psychology can have a significant impact on mental and physical health. People who practice positive psychology are more likely to:

  • Experience better physical health. Positive emotions have been linked to better cardiovascular health, a stronger immune system, and a longer lifespan.
  • Have stronger relationships. Positive emotions can help people build stronger and more satisfying relationships.
  • Be more successful. People with a positive mindset are more likely to set and achieve goals.
  • Be more resilient. Positive psychology interventions can help people bounce back from adversity and develop greater resilience.
  • Experience greater well-being. Positive psychology can help people experience more positive emotions and a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Martin Seligman’s contributions to positive psychology

Martin Seligman has made several significant contributions to the field of positive psychology:

  • Learned optimism. Seligman’s research on learned helplessness led him to explore the opposite concept of learned optimism. He found that people who were able to view negative events as temporary and specific, rather than global and permanent, were more likely to be resilient and bounce back from adversity.
  • The PERMA model. Seligman developed the PERMA model, which stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishments. This model provides a framework for understanding the key components of well-being and happiness.
  • Character strengths and virtues. Seligman and his colleagues developed a classification of 24 character strengths and virtues that are universally valued across cultures. These strengths include qualities such as wisdom, courage, and compassion, and can be used to help people build resilience and lead more fulfilling lives.


Martin Seligman’s contributions to positive psychology have been instrumental in advancing our understanding of what makes life worth living. His research on learned optimism and the PERMA model has provided a framework for promoting well-being and happiness. Positive psychology interventions that are based on Seligman’s work have been shown to be effective in helping people overcome depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

The field of positive psychology has shown us that a positive mindset can have a significant impact on our mental and physical health. By focusing on positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments, we can promote overall well-being and happiness. Whether it’s through practising gratitude, building strong relationships, or pursuing meaningful goals, we can all benefit from incorporating positive psychology into our lives.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.


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