S is for Martin Seligman: His Work On Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman is recognised as one of the key figures in the growth of positive psychology. In the video above he gives an introduction to the approach.

His work led to creating the Positive Psychology Center at The University of Pennsylvania. The Center says:

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive … It has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.

Marty has written several best-selling books, such as Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness and Character Strengths and Virtues, the latter co-written with Christopher Peterson. More recently he has focused on the idea of flourishing.

This short introduction provides a taster of his work. The definitive version can be found at The Positive Psychology Center, which is based at the University of Pennsylvania. You can access this at:



Marty says he spent the first part of his psychological career studying misery. Moving on from treating ‘learned helplessness’, he studied people who were optimistic. What did they do right to live fulfilling lives?

He passed over a threshold after being elected president of the American Psychological Association. Marty was asked to pick the themes he wanted to work on during his Presidency. After a period of reflection, he chose to focus on positive psychology.

In his book  Authentic Happiness Marty described three kinds of lives that people could lead. Here is a brief overview.

The Pleasant Life

This is the ‘life of enjoyment’. It is one where people get positive feelings from pursuing their interests and other pleasurable experiences.

The Good Life

This is the ‘life of engagement’ or absorption. It is one where people immerse themselves in certain activities and experience a state of flow.

This happens when there is a positive match between a person’s strength and the task they are doing.

The Meaningful Life

This is the ‘life of affiliation’. It is one where people experience a sense of purpose by using their higher strengths to serve or be part of something greater than themselves.

So what is the magic combination? Looking at it empirically, says Marty, the fulfilling life appears to be: The Meaningful Life + The Good Life + some aspects of The Pleasant Life. In that order.


Marty has always maintained that there is more to life than happiness, so in 2012 he published Flourish. Here is an excerpt from the summary of the book which you can find via the following link.


Flourish builds on Dr. Seligman’s game-changing work on optimism, motivation, and character to show how to get the most out of life, unveiling an electrifying new theory of what makes a good life – for individuals, for communities, and for nations.

While certainly a part of well-being, happiness alone doesn’t give life meaning. Seligman now asks, What is it that enables you to cultivate your talents, to build deep, lasting relationships with others, to feel pleasure, and to contribute meaningfully to the world?

In a word, what is it that allows you to flourish?

“Well-being” takes the stage front and center, and Happiness (or Positive Emotion) becomes one of the five pillars of Positive Psychology, along with Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment – or PERMA, the permanent building blocks for a life of profound fulfillment.

Martin Luenendock has written an excellent article that explains this model in greater depth. You can find this via the following link.

Perma Model

In the video below Marty outlines the PERMA approach to enabling people to flourish.

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