Author: Martin E.P. Seligman
APA Style Citation
Seligman, M. (2018). The hope circuit: A psychologist’s journey from helplessness to optimism. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
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The Hope Circuit is the personal story of Martin Seligman. Seligman used his position at the APA to transform American psychology from focusing on weakness to looking at strengths. Rather than being driven by the past he created a new psychology of hope based on the future. The field is now known as Positive Psychology.
Seligman was born to Jewish parents and strongly identified as Jewish. As a young boy he was intelligent and well-liked by teachers. Even though Marty had top grades, he was denied a promotion due to anti-Semitic sentiments. Eventually, this also led to his rejection to Harvard. Seligman ultimately attended Princeton. He started taking philosophy classes, but got caught up in the rigor (internal validity) versus reality (external validity) debate. The summer before his senior year, he completed his first lab work in psychology studying the effects of electric shock as punishment. The rat study led to his first publication in a top journal. Soon after he was granted a fellowship to study experimental psychology and a fellowship to study analytic philosophy. He was at a crossroads and needed to decide whether he wanted to be a psychologist or a philosopher.
He was a natural psychologist and decided to start down the road of psychology. It was during a meeting at University of Pennsylvania that Dick Soloman said, “I think the dogs in my lab are helpless, and I don’t know why.” This statement stuck with Marty for years and presented one of the first of many paths in his career. From 1964-67, Seligman did research on learned helplessness. He published helplessness (outlining his cognitive theory) with limited criticisms. However, learning theorists, fearing the cognitive storm, quickly went on the defense especially with animals. His research involved shocking dogs, which was called into question due to ethical concerns. After the experiment the dogs were taken to a park and set free. Marty does not know their fate, but thinks of them often. After finishing the PhD program, Marty took a job as assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University. His assertive personality kept him distant from others and he was not always well-liked. Despite his negativity, he was ambitious and surrounded by devoted students and followers. In 1967, he was introduced to psychiatry by Joe Wolpe who took him under his wing and gave him first look at mental illness. It was then that Seligman drifted from a learning psychologist to a clinical psychologist.
Seligman continued teaching at Cornell and his passion for psychology came across in his teaching. After reading an article by John Garcia he opened a new career path once again. Marty shared his “sauce béarnaise” taste aversion story with his students and it became one of the “most publicized meals since the Last Supper.” Seligman became known for his work on learned helplessness and biological constraints. He extended his work to evolutionary preparedness for phobias and OCD. At this point in his life, he paid little attention to his personal life, was seen as self-obsessed, and classified himself as anxious and depressed. Meanwhile, learned helplessness was being replicated in rats, mice, goldfish, cats, and cockroaches based in part on the work Seligman had done with dogs.
Marty’s life took a turn when he received the Guggenheim Fellowship and became visiting professor at the Institute of Psychiatry of the Maudsley and Bethlem Hospitals, run by Hans Eysenck. He met Suzanne, a PhD student, and fell in love. Soon after he left his wife and two children for Suzanne. It was also at this time that his first trade book, Helplessness, was published. When questioned publicly about his research he invited the critic to collaborate. Together, with his research group, they worked to define the “depressive attributional style” for internal, stable, global bad events. This new style was called “pessimism” and hypothesized as a risk factor for depression. In 1980, his relationship with Suzanne ended and Marty was a 38-year-old bachelor with major depression. Seligman reinvested himself into college life. He and a friend formed “Chicken Dinner Club” where twelve of the liveliest faculty from all disciplines were invited to dinner once a month. He wanted to create an environment similar to the one he experienced in college; an intellectual environment filled with faculty and students. Then, he became director of his department and could no longer straddle the natural and social sciences or basic and applied science. He believed scientific psychology was meaningful only if it applied to human problems and he became the advocate of applied psychology. His research took new turns into the world of business and predicting sports. He also explored the connection between cancer and helplessness.
Seligman bought a large house and hoped to one day make it a home. Mandy, a new graduate student, caught Marty’s attention. Despite being 17 years older, once divorced, and not ideal marriage material, he asked her to marry him. They were married one year later. She was the love of his life and mother to five of his children. She made the house a home. At the age of 46, he changed his life and spent more time with his wife and thought about the good in life.
In 1990, Seligman’s publishing career took hold. He wrote Learned Optimism and presented evidence-based exercises to raise optimism and decrease depression. Next, he wrote Optimistic Child to help teach optimism in middle school and lower the risk for depression and anxiety. Then he wrote a book that changed his life. He wrote the book What You Can Change and What You Can’t. It was a guide to major disorders and major treatments. At the time, evaluation of psychotherapy was unclear. It was concluded that the effectiveness studies were a decent guide and efficacy studies were not. Marty was seen as a traitor by his academic colleagues, but a hero with therapists.
Building on his support from therapists, Marty ran for president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and won. He used this new position to lead the charge for positive psychology. Together with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Marty spent his 1998 New Year’s vacation inventing positive psychology. They created a name, secured funding, and worked to find leaders in the field. Positive psychology launched at the end of 1999. From there, the research led into writing a DSM of good character and virtue. At this point, Seligman was 60 years old and flourishing. His life was filled with love, work, and play. By 2001, there was a Positive Psychology Center and a master’s degree of applied positive psychology (MAPP) by 2005. The Authentic Happiness website was created and five elements (PERMA) of positive psychology were identified.
Seligman started positive education; prevention being better than therapy. The first Penn Prevention Program for children began. He began to train teachers and measure how well it worked. His work had a giant boost from Angela Duckworth (who joined Penn as a grad student in 2002). She wanted to explore how self-discipline compared with IQ in predicting success. Seligman would go on to create a positive education program in Australia. The program was taught to teachers first and had a huge effect of providing rejuvenation for teachers. The prevention program was then extended to the UK, Bhutan, Mexico, and Peru.
Seligman’s story took a turn with his work for the government. In 2002, he was asked by the CIA how the research on learned helplessness could help captured Americans resist and evade torture and interrogation. He was never asked about using his research with detainees. He was also invited to the Pentagon to address mental illness that plagued the army. He decided to teach and measure resiliency and positive psychology for the army. Seligman helped create a 120-item Global Assessment Tool (GAT) and pilot a program to teach signature strengths, build strong relationships, and use effective praise. Penn received a $31 million contract to train U.S. Army personnel in resilience and positive psychology. While this caught a lot of criticism, it was a sole-sourced no-bid contract because no other entities besides Penn could compete for the contract. More recently Marty’s work has turned to protective factors against physical illness. Studies have shown optimism mattered above all factors in preventing heart disease. Prospection, the mental activity of envisioning future scenarios about our lives, is an important factor. Thanks to the U.S. Army consolidating personnel and medical records he has the data for longitudinal studies. That coupled with data from Twitter has found that changing what you think and what you say, might be the royal road to physical health. Marty is looking to the future rather than the past. Philosophy may once again join with psychology. He is exploring prospection, creativity, and consciousness.
Seligman’s original learned helplessness research has been turned upside down. His collaborator, Steve Maier, was retrained as a neuroscientist and studied brain circuits in rats. Steve showed that being helpless was a natural, unlearned, default response to prolonged shock. He found that it was not helplessness, but control and mastery that were learned. The hope is that we can learn- and teach- that future bad events can be controlled, and this will help buffer against helplessness and anxiety. The story of the hope circuit comes amidst a foggy, painful state. Seligman’s friend Jack Templeton died and the night before the funeral Marty had significant pain from a cyst on his spine. He woke from a deep sleep, and knew that the circuit Steve found was the hope circuit. He was able to attend Jack’s funeral that day. When he was asked to give the eulogy, he added “I want to tell Jack what happened to me this morning. Jack and I talked often about a science of hope and its relation to faith. Between science and religion one can grasp everything. Jack wanted there to be a hope circuit in the brain and I can tell him now that there is.” He delivered the eulogy and went home to bed for days.
In Seligman’s lifetime, psychology has shifted away from behaviorism and turned more seriously toward cognition, evolution, and the brain. In addition, attention has shifted from weaknesses and focusing on one’s past to strengths and the possibilities of the future. As president of the APA he led the charge to change psychology. Marty has transformed from a learning psychologist to a clinical psychologist and now a positive psychologist. His personal life has gained fulfillment. He is no longer a pessimist and skeptic. His personal and professional story is one of change and for the better.
Other Related Resources
Learned Helplessness Article
APA- Old Problem, New Tools
What is Learned Helplessness?
Learned Helplessness Video
TED Talk: Martin Seligman- The New Era of Positive Psychology
Psychological Concepts and Figures
Aaron (Tim) Beck
Mary Whiton Calkins
Mihaly (Mike) Csikszentmihalyi
Elizabeth (Beth) Loftus
Abraham (Abe) Maslow
Robert (Bob) Rescorla
BF (Fred) Skinner
Edward L. Thorndike
John B. Watson
Basic vs. applied psychology
Biological constraints and preparedness
Cross-sectional vs. longitudinal
Depressive attributional style (pessimism)
DSM and UnDSM
Efficacy vs. effectiveness research
External vs. internal validity
Fight or flight
Law of effect
Locus of control
VIA Signature Strengths Test