Emotional intelligence has lately become something of a buzzword. Books, magazines, podcasts, random internet articles abound with information on emotional intelligence. A quick Google search of the term returns over 190 million results.
Everyone has heard of it - but what is it really?
Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to correctly perceive the emotions other people are experiencing, to understand emotions, and to effectively manage emotions in times of stress and difficulty.
The popularity of emotional intelligence is not without reason. Higher levels of emotional intelligence have been linked to success in almost every domain of life. It’s associated with better mental health, better physical health, improved job performance, improved job satisfaction, higher levels of innovation, improved academic performance and higher quality relationships. Put simply, it makes you happier, healthier, more successful and more able to have fulfilling, satisfying and functional relationships.
So how can we improve our emotional intelligence? We should focus on improving aspects of our emotional intelligence that are more likely to be amenable to change: understanding and managing emotions.
An individual who is great at understanding emotions has a wide emotional vocabulary, is more in tune with how certain situations elicit various emotions and how emotions themselves can lead to particular outcomes/consequences. Ways in which we can improve this ability include:
Being mindful of the emotions we are experiencing and why we are experiencing them.
When I am in a bad mood, I can simply chalk it up to being down in the dumps for no particular reason. Or I can reflect on my day, and pinpoint that perhaps I am feeling stressed because I was notified earlier of several impending deadlines. Taking the time to reflect on our emotions is not only important for potentially improving our ability to understand emotions, but is an important act of self-awareness.
Improving our emotional vocabulary.
After an argument with a loved one, I may believe that I am feeling angry. But instead, I may be feeling frustrated, resentful, exasperated, bitter or annoyed. Whilst these emotions are overlapping, there are subtle yet important distinctions between them. Recognising these differences is an easy and achievable way of improving our emotional intelligence.
I’m not talking about runaway pop culture hits such as Twilight or The Hunger Games but classics such as Jane Eyre or Flowers for Algernon. Classics are rich in character development and really delve into the emotions the characters are experiencing. By exploring characters’ inner lives, we may have a greater appreciation of the complexity of human experience. Reading literary fiction can also help improve emotional vocabulary, which I already mentioned is important for improving our ability to understand emotions.
An individual who is effective at managing emotions uses adaptive coping strategies to deal with stress and difficulty, and avoids maladaptive coping strategies. Ways in which we can improve this ability include:
Avoiding destructive or negative coping strategies.
In times of turmoil, many people engage in unhealthy behaviours that may make them feel worse about the situation. For example, people may try to dampen negative emotions by turning to alcohol, drugs or emotional eating. These may numb the experience of negative emotions in the short-term but are destructive for one’s health, and do not address the underlying issues.
Learning how to reappraise negative situations.
Cognitive reappraisal is an adaptive way of dealing with negative emotions, and entails changing the pattern of one’s thinking. For example, I may fail at an important project and may spiral into thinking, “I’m a failure! I will never be good at my career.” Or I may change my mindset and instead think, “I failed this one time, but let me learn from this opportunity so that I can improve and succeed in the future.” These mindsets arose from the exact same situation, but the latter is infinitely healthier and more adaptive. Reappraisal takes practice, but it is worth it for the boost in mental wellbeing and emotional intelligence.
Practicing self-care strategies.
Sometimes in the face of intensely emotional experiences, reappraisal is not enough. In such instances, it is important to employ positive self-care strategies that have been shown to improve wellbeing. Examples of such strategies include making the time time to regularly exercise, meeting with friends and family, and engaging in hobbies that we love. It is important to note that these strategies should not be reserved for times of adversity - they should also be employed on a day-to-day basis.
Overall, emotional intelligence is something that we can improve on with enough practice and by engaging in the right strategies. It is worth following the above strategies so that we can become more emotionally intelligent, and lead happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives.
PSYCHOLOGIST & RESEARCHER, SIL, SYDNEY
Mahreen is completing her PhD on the science of Emotional Intelligence. Her previous research has also looked at the factors that influence how job performance changes over time. Mahreen has previously worked as a psychometric assessment consultant and also teaches organisational behaviour in the UNSW business school.