The Hope Circuit, Reviewed by Joe Smith

The Hope Circuit by Martin Seligman

Review by Joe Smith


Martin Seligman is one of the best-known and most influential psychologists in the world. He is also something of a celebrity, central to the development of popular psychology and its incursion into the self-help publishing genre. Seligman is most famous today for fathering positive psychology, which celebrates 20 years of stunning growth this August. Half a century ago, he made his name with learned helplessness, a discovery that Seligman argues helped overthrow behaviorist orthodoxy and usher in psychology’s cognitive turn. In this unsparing autobiography, the author opens up his personal life as one might open a vein. He settles scores, exposes the machinations of academic psychology and tries to set the record straight about his legacy.


Three reasons for reading this book

There are at least three good reasons for reading this book. First, Seligman illuminates the history, philosophy and often bitter politics of psychology. Second, this book details the evolution and revolutions in Seligman’s own thinking, and how they drove his great contributions to the field. Finally, you might read it to discover the mind and personality of Seligman himself and his life at the very top of the academic tree. The author presents a fascinating character study. On the one hand, he is wholly unsympathetic. He is, in his own estimation, brusque, dismissive and a grouch. But he is brutally, disarmingly frank, talking about how his father may have tried to kill himself by jumping from their moving car and about his own lifelong battles with depression, or how he left his family for a siren who then dumped him for a celebrity professor. It is a gripping, sometimes dismaying glimpse; much of Seligman’s work has been about happiness, but he often been very unhappy.


Four paradigm shifts

The motif of this book is how the arc of Seligman’s personal and professional life has mirrored developments in psychology. The author presents the modern history of the discipline in terms of four paradigm shifts:

  • the abandonment of behaviorism and the embrace of cognition and consciousness;Image created by the author (J. Smith)

  • the rejection of the “blank slate” and the acceptance that evolution and the brain condition and constrain mental life;

  • the end of psychology’s fixation on mental sickness and its redirection towards enhancing well-being;

  • the realization that humans are “drawn into the future rather than driven by the past” (2018, p. 7).

This last “prospective psychology”, it should immediately be said, is currently more of a twinkle in Seligman’s eye than a tectonic shift in the foundations of the field. Nevertheless, his breakdown is instructive, especially since Seligman says that “at more than one pivotal moment, I led the transformation” (p. 7). The author is being modest - Seligman is indisputably the principal architect of psychology’s turn towards positive wellbeing and of the nascent psychology of prospection. His modesty is also rather false, since Seligman soon seems to claim a decisive hand in the other two as well.

Revolutions imply bloodshed and conflict is a strong theme in this book; conflicts within the field and between Seligman and the gatekeepers of academic psychology. As well as the four transformations Seligman describes, this review will consider two further struggles. First, the author records it as his greatest professional disappointment that the benefits demonstrated by positive psychology have not been acknowledged by healthcare industries. Seligman is not slow to identify the culprits in Big Pharma and the therapist lobby. The second issue relates to the author’s popularization of psychology. Seligman became famous outside academia by writing psychology books for the general public. That fame allowed him to become president of the American Psychological Association (“APA”) and launch positive psychology in the high-profile manner he did. He has done much, this is to say, to bring the discoveries of psychology to a wider audience. Many of Seligman’s colleagues in the scientific community, however, believe his popular books to have cheapened psychology and, he says, for nearly 30 years, have ostracizsed him.


1. Learned helplessness, behaviorism and cognition

Animals learn helplessness, Seligman showed, when they are repeatedly exposed to painful stimuli which they cannot influence by their behavior. If subsequently they are presented with aversive stimuli that they can avoid, animals that have learned helplessness make no effort to do so. Such individuals, Seligman argued, have learned that “nothing they do matters”, a dynamic characteristic of depression as well as other mental and physical disorders.

The experiments that demonstrated this were on the one hand undertaken within a behaviorist framework. They were conducted on rats in a laboratory, focussed explicitly on behavior and were originally intended as exercises in classical conditioning. Yet they provided evidence of the untenability of that paradigm because they implied cognition. Seligman and his collaborator Steve Maier’s (1967) experimental design included clever control conditions that isolated the lack of contingency between a test animal’s behavior and helplessness in such a way that it very strongly suggested an interceding mental event with a particular content about the pointlessness of action.

This was not the single experimental result that sunk behaviorism. Many such findings accrued over a long period of time. Seligman perhaps over-claims for the significance of his own research in the fall of the paradigm, but in the context of his autobiography, the reader automatically corrects for some bias. As for the behaviourists, having no rejoinder to the mounting evidence of the existence of mental life, they “stayed silent and stayed silent and stayed silent” (p. 136) until their enterprise collapsed under the burden of its implausibility.


2. Evolutionary psychology

Behaviorism has been comprehensively cast out of intellectual life, but the radical environmentalist notion of the “‘blank slate” has not. In his 2003 book of that title, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker lays out overwhelming evidence from evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience and twin studies for the enormous role of biology in almost every psychological trait we are interested in. Despite this evidence, as Pinker records, in many corners of universities, mention of the same attracts charges of “essentialism”, prejudice and worse.

Seligman’s talk of the abandonment of this mentality is thus premature. Of the four paradigm shifts that he cites, too, his claim to have led the transformation to an evolutionarily and neurologically informed psychology is the least plausible. That does not stop him from appearing to make it. The author asserts that, as he lectured in the late 60s and early 70s, “I found myself knitting together an entire area of psychology whose texture had previously been invisible to me. Today, it is known as ‘evolutionary psychology’. Fifty years ago, it did not exist” (p. 91). Seligman may of course have been imagining the field, and it is true that he advanced evolutionary explanations for learned helplessness and other of his work at the time, such as his cognitive theory of avoidance (1973). But the scholars in the post-war period most responsible for establishing evolutionary psychology are Hamilton (1963), Trivers (1971) and Wilson (1975); Seligman is not remembered as having driven these developments.


Trade books

When Seligman was approached to write Helplessness (1975), there had only been one previous “trade book” reviewing psychology for a general audience, Aronson’s The Social Animal (1972). It was a revelatory for Seligman, as well as for his readers. Writing in short simple sentences, he found, suited him. He adopted the technique of beginning an explanatory passage with an illustrative anecdote, “this juxtaposition of anecdote and hard data became the hallmark of my writing and teaching” (p. 92).

This is a good juncture to comment on Seligman’s narrative style. The millions of copies his books have sold testify to its effectiveness, but his use of anecdotes with direct quotations at the start of chapters can come to feel a little predictable and formulaic. By the middle of this book, too, one gets the sense that the author is ploughing through his material in one long sitting and is looking forward to getting on to other things. The quotation above, about how behaviorists “stayed silent and stayed silent and stayed silent” is a case in point. It has the ring of the first expression that came to mind, a turn of phrase that another author might polish away during rewritings and revisions.

Returning to the bigger picture, Seligman’s popularization of psychology reveals paradoxes about the discipline’s relations to the world outside academia. His books, and the popular works of other professional psychologists, show that there is a vast appetite for what the discipline is discovering. Satisfying that appetite is good for psychologists in many ways. It can help get their work funded. It can make them money and advance their careers. And of course, it furthers the cause of science by disseminating knowledge about mind and behavior. There is the moral argument, too, that psychologists have a responsibility to engage with the public since the latter pays for a large part of the former’s work through taxes and government funding of universities. And yet, as Seligman’s book confirms, scientists in practice often look down on attempts to communicate with tribes other than their own. They treat it as ignoble and uncouth, almost a betrayal.

Seligman recalls when Learned Optimism (1990) became a best-seller, how a rave review from The New York Times, “transformed the book in the eyes of sales rankers” into self-help, a “dreaded category” (p. 212). He wrestled with this designation, eventually rationalizing that helping people to help themselves was exactly what he wanted to achieve. He now claims that title to be the first ever “evidence-based” self-help volume. But though his colleagues in the humanities applauded the book’s success, those in the sciences froze him out. He says, “no psychologist said a word to me - not then, not ever” (p. 213).


3. Positive Psychology

Researchers like Ed Diener (1984), Richard Easterlin (1973) and Ruut Veenhoven (1988) had been working on happiness and its cognates in previous decades, but positive psychology was conceived and ordained by Seligman himself. It was made possible, he concedes, by his being elected President of the APA in 1998. That position is usually decided by gentlemen’s agreements between its high officeholders. Seligman, however, parlayed his name-recognition and popularity among the APA’s now large therapist constituency to upset the succession. He then had a moment of epiphany when his 5-year-old daughter called him out on his lifelong grouchincess. Seligman decided to devote his presidency and his career to refocusing psychology on psychological well-being. He convened teams of the best psychologists to formulate a plan, then used his platform at the APA to promote it. A crucial piece of the puzzle fell into place when Seligman secured generous funding from two “angel” charitable foundations that have supported his initiatives ever since.

The story of positive psychology is fascinating and important, but the scenery will feel familiar to those who’ve read Seligman’s Authentic Happiness (2004) and Flourish (2012). Some of the material is directly recycled, and Seligman’s recounting feels list-like. His account, with his hallmark anecdotes and direct quotations, is oddly reminiscent of the recruitment segment of a heist movie - he gathers the best safe breakers/computer nerds/cat burglars in an exotic location and they all agree to do the job. Seligman presents himself, here and throughout the book, as an iconoclast and an outsider butting heads with the establishment. It is not clear, though, that this persona is a good fit for a former head of the APA, very securely funded and one of the highest profile psychologists anywhere.


Why your doctor is not offering positive psychology

Positive psychology has devised some remarkably effective interventions for improving psychological health, Seligman reminds us. Less familiar, but just as impressive, are the effects they can have on physical health. An optimistic rather than pessimistic outlook is associated with protective consequences for cardiovascular health greater than not smoking. Other desirable health outcomes are frequently shown to be more effectively promoted by improving psychological wellbeing than with than drugs or traditional therapy, while having no negative side effects and being a fraction of the cost. Amazingly, according to Seligman, studies on “positive health” in relation to heart disease have been 100% consistent in always showing significant benefits.

Positive psychology has been successful not only in terms of its experimental results, but incredibly generative of research; the numbers of academic papers on the subject increased exponentially from the turn of the Millennium until at least 2014 (Kullenberg & Nelhans, 2015). It has also been a commercial hit with the wider public, certainly in publishing terms.

Why, then, are interventions like diarizing positive events, practicing gratitude and acts of random kindness not prescribed by healthcare professionals alongside, or in place of, drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy? The answer, according to Seligman, is as plain as it is demoralizing. Almost-costless, effective interventions are being kept out of the hands of people who need them by Big Pharma and the therapist lobby to protect revenues from their traditional industries and practices. Their efforts are compounded by the instinctive narrow-mindedness of prestigious medical journals. Seligman believes that they reject positive psychology submissions out of hand. The failure of positive psychology to achieve its potential benefits to healthcare has been, he says, the “single most frustrating obstacle in my scientific career” (p.333).


4. Prospective Psychology

Positive psychology presumes that human nature endows it with the telos - the end or goal - of expressing certain virtues of character. Human good lies in furthering that goal. In being teleological, the theory future-oriented. This premise is reified in prospective psychology to become the defining characteristic of human nature. In another of his chapter-opening anecdotes, Seligman recalls telling the Dalai Lama why Buddhism’s injunction to live in the moment is wrong: “We are not beings who dwell in the present. Our minds brim with futures. This is not to be fought. The future is in our nature” (p. 349).

Interesting supporting evidence for the descriptive part of Seligman’s statement comes from neuroscience. Experimental control subjects in fMRI studies are often told to lie in the scanner and think of nothing in particular. Of course, they do not do this, but instead think and plan and strategize about their future. So much so that their brain patterns are indistinguishable from those of people who’ve been explicitly instructed to consciously imagine future events. The neural apparatus for prospection has for this reason been labelled “the default circuit” (Raichle et al., 2001).

Prospective psychology is touted by Seligman as a framework for tackling some recalcitrant theoretical problems. He and his colleagues suggest that the purpose of consciousness, for example, is to think about different possible futures. Desire and agency are given explanations in terms of one’s attitude towards these potentialities. Most ambitiously, it is alleged that freedom of the will becomes tractable when posed in terms of prospection, with Seligman suggesting that the breadth of the possible futures we can imagine is a precise measure of the extent to which we are free. All this has implications for practice. We will form a better picture about the state of someone's mental health by asking what they think of the future than of the past, thinks Seligman, and therapy that focuses exclusively on historical traumas, rather than better futures, is likely to fail.

In assessing these claims, it must be conceded that free will, choice and consciousness can be analysed in terms of prospection, and the exercise provides useful perspectives. But doing so does nothing to solve those problems. Seligman’s can-do attitude is often admirable, but here he overlooks the profundity of the issues. For example, he dismisses the “hard determinism of traditional psychology . . . because all science is at best statistical” (p. 353). Yes, but free, intentional agency is just as absent from a probabilistic physical universe as from a deterministic one. The idea that therapy focused on the future will be more effective than that focused on the past, meanwhile, is an interesting empirical claim that can and surely will be tested. There are, however, as yet only a handful of studies of prospective psychology, and its potential remains to be explored.



It is unreasonable to expect the author of an autobiography, even if he is a scientist, to be dispassionate about his own life. This book is a highly selective and partisan account of a long span of time and a huge range of topics involving Seligman’s life in psychology. But even discounting for bias, it is hard to come away not having positively revised one’s appreciation of Seligman’s contribution to the field.

Something similar applies to Seligman himself. He recounts some cringeworthy moments, such as when on the point of proposing marriage, he is almost derailed by his pretensions as an oenophile, which compel him to taste the wine three times and send it back twice. He tells us too, that he is no longer ambitious; it is the honors he hasn’t won, rather than those has, that keep him up at 4am. Similarly, he says he doesn’t think much about the past, 350 pages into a 450-page autobiography that starts in 1905 with his grandparents. Seligman is not one for irony.

But the author is so very upfront, and his love for his subject is so obvious and sincere, that it is easy to look past any of this. As the title suggests, this is an optimistic book. It is amazing to reflect how far the discipline, as well as the author, has come in 50 years.


Aronson, E. (1972). The social animal. New York, NY: Worth.

Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological bulletin, 95(3), 542.

Easterlin, R. A. (1973). Does money buy happiness?. The public interest, (30), 3.

Kullenberg, C., & Nelhans, G. (2015). The happiness turn? Mapping the emergence of “happiness studies” using cited references. Scientometrics, 103(2), 615-630.

Hamilton, W. D. (1963). The evolution of altruistic behavior. The American naturalist, 97(896), 354-356.

Pinker, S. (2003). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. Penguin.

Raichle, M. E., MacLeod, A. M., Snyder, A. Z., Powers, W. J., Gusnard, D. A., & Shulman, G. L. (2001). A default mode of brain function. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(2), 676-682.

Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of experimental psychology, 74(1), 1.

Seligman, M. E., & Johnston, J. C. (1973). A cognitive theory of avoidance learning. In F. J. McGuigan & D. B. Lumsden, Contemporary approaches to conditioning and learning. Oxford, England: V. H. Winston & Sons.

Seligman, M. E. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. A series of books in psychology. New York, NY: WH Freeman/Times Books/Henry Holt & Co.

Seligman, M. E. (1990). Learned optimism: The skills to conquer life’s obstacles, large and small. New York, NY: Random House. 

article author(s)

book rating

3 of 5
2 of 5
4 of 5