Ancient tales suggest that as long as humans have told stories, they have been intrigued with people who overcome adversity to succeed in life. The scientific study of human resilience is more recent, dating back just a few decades. In the late 1960s and 1970s, a group of pioneering scientists set out to study risk for various emotional and behavioral problems in young people. They were surprised to discover how often individuals exposed to many kinds of adversities in life were turning out just fine. How could this be?
The pioneers soon realized the potential importance of understanding resilience for helping other people. What makes a difference? Can these positive influences be fostered?
Many of the early studies of resilience were focused on young people growing up in hazardous situations. Across the world, investigators began to focus serious attention for the first time on the people who adapted or recovered well, despite facing significant challenges. Many kinds of threats to human development were studied, including natural disasters, war, family conflict and violence, genetic risks, economic hardship, neglect, and bereavement. As results emerged from these wide-ranging studies, a surprising conclusion took shape.
Resilience is common and it typically arises from the operation of normal rather than extraordinary human capabilities, relationships, and resources. In other words, resilience emerges from ordinary magic.
Study after study has revealed a frequent list of factors associated with resilience. These “usual suspects” probably look familiar.
The Short List of Resilience Factors for Children and Youth
- Effective parents and caregivers
- Connections to other competent and caring adults
- Problem-solving skills
- Self-regulation skills
- Positive beliefs about the self
- Beliefs that life has meaning
- Spirituality, faith and religious affiliations
- Socioeconomic advantages
- Prosocial, competent peers and friends
- Effective teachers and schools
- Safe and effective communities
My short list came from research on young people, but research on adults suggests that many of these same resilience factors continue to be important (sometimes in more mature forms) as people grow older. Close relationships, for example, are important across the lifespan, first with parents and later with friends or romantic partners.
The short list provides important clues to what matters for resilience, leading me to conclude that there must be fundamental protective systems for human resilience.
Examples of Basic Protective Systems for Human Resilience
- Attachment relationships
- Human intelligence and information processing (a human brain in good working order)
- Motivation to adapt and opportunities for agency (mastery motivation)
- Self-control and emotion regulation (self-regulation)
- Religious and cultural systems that nurture human development and resilience
- Schools and communities that nurture and support human development and resilience
In other words, resilience does not require anything rare or extraordinary, but instead requires that basic human adaptive systems are operating normally. Children and older human individuals have impressive capacity for resilience when basic protections are working: when they have the protection of parents looking out for them or the emotional security of close relationships with others (human or spiritual); when the human brain is functioning normally for learning, problem-solving, and trouble-shooting; when they have opportunities to experience the hopes and rewards of doing something that changes what is happening; and when their environment supports these systems.
The greatest threats to human resilience are circumstances that destroy or damage these basic protections. Young children, for example, depend on a parent figure looking after them. Restoring care and functional parenting is the top priority when a child’s caregivers are lost.
In future blog entries, I will discuss case examples of resilience, what we are learning about these fundamental protective systems, and implications for promoting resilience in individuals, families, and communities, both before and after adversity. Children and adults facing disasters in the here and now cannot wait for science to learn all about resilience before anyone acts on the evidence at hand.
I also will consider some of the most frequent questions I am asked about resilience: Is adversity good for you? Is resilience a trait? Are there resilience genes? Are resilient people happy?
Recommended reading on resilience in human development
Masten, A. S., & Wright, M. O’D. (2009). Resilience over the lifespan: Developmental perspectives on resistance, recovery, and transformation. In J. W. Reich, A. J. Zautra, & J. S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience (pp. 213-237). New York: Guilford Press (http://www.guilford.com/p/reich).
A copy of this chapter is available courtesy of Guilford Press at
Masten, A. S. (2009). Ordinary Magic: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Education Canada, 49(3): 28-32. http://www.cea-ace.ca/media/en/Ordinary_Magic_Summer09.pdf
Masten, A. S., & Obradović, J. (2008). Disaster preparation and recovery: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Ecology and Society, 13(1): 9. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol13/iss1/art9/
Lester, B. M., Masten, A. S., & McEwen, B. S. (2006). Resilience in Children. Vol. 1094, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-238. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/56/3/227.pdf