Child psychologist Ann Masten, 2024 Grawemeyer Award Winner in Psychology
Child psychologist Ann Masten, 2024 Grawemeyer Award Winner in Psychology, speaks at UofL on April 11, 2024. UofL photo.

Did you ever meet someone who not only survived, but thrived, despite a trauma-filled past or daunting obstacles? Exploring the human capacity to overcome potentially harmful experiences with resilience has been the focus of research for child psychologist Ann Masten, who won the 2024 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Psychology for her idea outlined in the book, “Ordinary Magic.” Masten, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, earned the prize for showing that resilience can come from ordinary but powerful adaptive processes inside us and from our supportive connections with others.

On Thursday, April 11, Masten presented her ideas to a full auditorium at the University of Louisville, which included psychology students as well as visiting high school students.

Resilience science began around 1970 as a search to explain how some children who face severe adversity seem to thrive while others do not. In recent years, resilience research has transformed practice in clinical psychology, pediatrics, psychiatry, school psychology, counseling, social work, family social science and disaster response.

“As I studied children and families dealing with war, disasters, poverty, violence and homelessness, I found a consistent set of surprisingly ordinary but powerful factors at work,” she said. “Resilience didn’t depend on special qualities but on a capacity to adapt that we develop over time as we are nurtured, learn and gain experience.”

Masten’s current resilience research, along with others in her field, shifts the focus to positive outcomes, strength-based, promotive and protective processes, and building capacity at multiple levels: within individuals, in religions and other cultural systems and in community and society systems.

According to Masten, a “short list” of psychosocial factors that play a part in nurturing resilience in children include ones you might expect to see such as effective parenting and safe, effective schools and communities, but also things like purpose, sense of meaning, hope, faith and optimism, positive routines, rituals and cultural traditions, and positive view of self, identity and capabilities.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, has become a buzzword in modern social science and child development studies, and includes experiences such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, low education or parental incarceration. Masten spoke about the importance of also examining and measuring positive childhood experiences, (PCEs), such as having at least one caregiver with whom you felt safe, beliefs that gave you comfort, and at least one teacher that cared about you.

Resilience is not something that just lives in the individual, said Masten, but is embedded and interconnected more broadly in families and cultural, community and society systems.

Masten used the pandemic as an example of a turbulent time that catalyzed a “striking mobilization of multisystem resilience, demonstrating the capacity of a system to adapt successfully to challenges.”

Masten’s findings have shaped policy and practice in many fields outside psychology such as pediatrics, school counseling, social work and disaster response. People in more than 180 countries including Ukraine have taken part in her online course about the resilience of children in war and disaster.

A licensed psychologist in Minnesota since 1986, Masten holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree from Smith College. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021 and has received mentoring and lifetime contribution awards from the American Psychological Association.

The $100,000 Grawemeyer prizes also honor seminal ideas in music composition, education, religion and ideas improving world order. Winners visit Louisville to accept their awards and give free talks on their winning ideas.

View photos from Masten’s lecture on UofL’s Flickr albums