Seligman was an assistant professor at 'Cornell University' and then taught psychology at the 'University of Pennsylvania.' While pursuing a PhD at the university, Seligman worked on the theory of "learned helplessness."
At 'Pennsylvania,' Seligman started working on the theory and discovered that people tend to give up instead of fighting back when they are subjected to limited control over a situation.
Seligman and his research colleagues accidentally discovered that their experimental conditioning procedures on dogs led to an unexpected consequence and that the freshly conditioned dogs did not respond to opportunities to learn to escape from an unpleasant situation.
Further developments to the theory classified "learned helplessness" into a psychological condition in which a person or an animal learns to act or behave helpless in a situation, usually after they fail to avoid a hostile situation despite having the power to alter the circumstance.
Seligman applied the theory to military soldiers to increase their psychological health and decrease post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Seligman found similarities among seriously depressed patients and urged that clinical depression and other related mental illnesses are caused due to lack of control over the consequence of a situation.
His findings led to a treatise on the prevention and treatment of depression. In 1975, Seligman published his book 'Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death.'
Along with his colleague Lyn Yvonne Abramson, Seligman later reformulated the theory to include attributional style. He eventually developed an interest in optimism, which developed a new branch of psychology.
Seligman worked extensively with Christopher Peterson to form a positive counterpart to the 'Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders.' His next two publications were 'Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life' (1991) and 'What You Can Change and What You Can't: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement' (1993).
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In 1995, an incident changed the direction of Seligman's research. He once yelled at his daughter, Nikki, while weeding in the garden. As addressed in a keynote to the 'North Carolina Psychological Association,' Seligman revealed that Nikki did not whine, thus sticking to the vow she had taken on her fifth birthday. Seligman concluded that a person could give up something if one aligns his or her mind with the thought.
In 1996, Seligman was elected as the president of the 'American Psychological Association' (APA) with the largest vote in the history of the organization. Seligman selected positive psychology for his ‘APA’ term.
Seligman served as the director of the 'Clinical Training Program' of the psychology department at the 'University of Pennsylvania.' The 'National Academies of Practice' named him a "Distinguished Practitioner." He also received the 'Pennsylvania Psychological Association' award for 'Distinguished Contributions to Science and Practice' in 1995.
He is a former president of the 'Division of Clinical Psychology' of the ‘APA.'
In his book 'Authentic Happiness' (2002), Seligman described happiness as a combination of positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. He was named the 31st-most-eminent psychologist and the 13th-most-cited psychologist in an article published by 'Haggbloom et al.'
Seligman is the founder-director of the 'Positive Psychology Center' (PPC) at the 'University of Pennsylvania.' In 2003, under his leadership, the university established the 'Master of Applied Positive Psychology' (MAPP) program, the first educational initiative of the ‘PPC.’
Seligman and Christopher Peterson co-wrote 'Character Strengths and Virtues' (2004), which provided an insight into the theoretical framework of positive psychology and provided a manual to practical applications of the concept. The two worked extensively on the "positive" counterpart to the ‘DSM,’ which focused on what could go wrong. The book, on the contrary, encouraged people to look at what could go right.
In July 2011, Seligman encouraged former British prime minister David Cameron to adopt a multi-dimensional analysis of people's well-being and financial wealth to assess the overall prosperity of a nation.
Seligman featured on a program called 'Newsnight,' where he discussed his ideas and his interests in the concept of well-being. His 2011 publication 'Flourish' explained the 'Well-Being Theory.' He concluded the theory with his five-element structure, 'PERMA,' or positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement.
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Seligman's most recent publication is 'The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism' (2018).
Currently, Seligman serves as the director of the 'Positive Psychology Center' at the 'University of Pennsylvania.' He is on the advisory board of the magazine named 'Parents.’
Seligman has been awarded an honorary degree by 'Uppsala University,' Sweden (1989). He has received a 'Doctor of Humane Letters' from the 'Massachusetts College of Professional Psychology' (1997) and honorary PhD degrees from 'Complutense University,' Spain (2003), and the 'University of East London' (2006).
The ‘APA’ has honored Seligman with an 'Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology' (2017). His other honors include a 'Tang Award for Lifetime Achievement in Psychology' (2014), an 'APA Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution' (2006), and a 'Lifetime Achievement Award of the Society for Research in Psychopathology' (1997).
The 'American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology' has honored Seligman with a 'Distinguished Contribution Award for Basic Research with Applied Relevance' (1992).
The ‘APA' has awarded him the 'James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award for Applications of Psychological Knowledge' (1995) and the 'William James Fellow Award for Contributions to Basic Science' (1991).