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The Truth About Emotional Intelligence

For those who have it, it predicts success in many ways.

Hannah Whitaker / Used with permission.
Hannah Whitaker / Used with permission.


A Brief History of Emotional Intelligence

Everyone values EI, but actually learning the component skills is another matter entirely.

By Marc Brackett, Ph.D., and Robin Stern, Ph.D.

Thirty-four years ago, in a world still debating whether emotions were a disruptive or adaptive force, two research psychologists proposed the concept of emotional intelligence. Peter Salovey and John Mayer contended that there is “a set of skills contributing to the accurate appraisal of emotions in self and others and the effective regulation of emotion in self and others” and that feelings could be harnessed to motivate oneself and to achieve in life. So unorthodox was the notion that people could benefit from their emotions that their article could find a home only in an obscure journal. Five years later, psychologist-writer Daniel Goleman, unconstrained by scholarly review processes, penned Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which widely popularized the idea.

Decades later, there exists a general understanding that emotions matter and can serve people’s goals; emotions have a seat at the table. From gaslighting to rizz, recent words of the year, people have adopted the language of emotions. Parents want their children to have emotional intelligence, and the new field of social and emotional learning is helping teachers bring it into classrooms. Adults understand the importance of EI in relationships and consider it a desirable quality in a partner. CEOs see it as essential to the 21st-century workplace, a requirement for good decision-making, inspiring others, team functioning, and general productivity; headhunters pose interview questions to assess it.

Further, we know from theory and some preliminary research that the skills of emotional intelligence actually matter. People who have them are healthier, happier, more effective, and more productive. EI predicts things of importance for children and adults. And if the worth of EI wasn’t clear before 2020, the pandemic halted so much social interaction—the growth medium of EI—that just about everyone hungered for human contact and stumbled in their social and emotional well-being.

However chastened the world is about the value of understanding yourself, maintaining friendships, and mastering daily frustrations, it’s inescapable that mental health in the U.S. has been declining in recent decades, especially among the young. If EI contributes to mental health and offers tools to address disappointments and uncertainties, how could that be?

As we see it, the number-one problem is implementation. People give lip service to wanting EI but don’t necessarily devote effort to gaining the skills. You can’t hold a one-hour workshop or put kids in a circle to talk about their feelings and call it EI. Emotional intelligence consists of a set of skills that advance developmentally, as people do, and their teaching has to be aligned with social and cognitive development. Just being aware of emotions is not enough. And you can’t teach EI to children unless you teach adults first; parents have to live it at home, teachers have to model it in school.

Becoming emotionally healthy and emotionally intelligent is hard work. That’s a hard sell in a culture that, over the past 30 years, has promoted the idea that you can gain mental health by taking a pill. Effort must go not only into gaining mental health but also maintaining it.

Emotional intelligence supports mental health, but it isn’t the whole of mental health. People get anxious or depressed for many reasons: Their biology may incline them to it. A partner suffers a debilitating experience. A breadwinner gets laid off. The more readily a person can recognize and label their emotional responses to life’s roller coaster, the better able they are to address those feelings while experiencing them, so as not to be overwhelmed by them.

Another major factor eroding the mental health of the population is that the world is exponentially more complicated today than even 30 years ago. There are more reasons for kids and adults to be anxious and overwhelmed. Climate change is an existential threat. There are school shootings. The governance of the country has been openly roiling for close to a decade, with a new level of uncertainty accompanying elections.

You can’t talk about mental health today without talking about technology. Digital technology was becoming available globally just as the concept of EI was introduced. When you are staring at a screen much of the day versus interacting with a live person, you miss out on important emotional currency.

At the same time, algorithms are keeping people in a state of emotional upheaval. Social media in particular have deliberately built into their platforms mechanisms to activate the nervous system. Research has shown a correlation between anxiety and time spent on social media.

It’s not impossible to course correct. The world has moved beyond the Freudian idea that emotions sit in a cauldron of the unconscious, driving us to do things we don’t want to do. We have an emotion system for a reason. Emotions are helpful. Happiness tells you that you are achieving your goals. Fear alerts you to prepare for danger. All emotions are data and information. There are skills that can help people use them wisely, but every one of them has to be learned.

Marc Brackett, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center. Robin Stern, Ph.D., is the associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and an associate research scientist in the Child Study Center.

Hannah Whitaker / Used with permission.
Hannah Whitaker / Used with permission.


Why You Should Expand Your Emotional Vocabulary

Emotional granularity, or the ability to precisely name a wide range of emotions, plays a critical role in psychological wellness. Here’s how to cultivate it.

By Katrina McCoy, Ph.D.

We’ve all felt it—the nagging of an unpleasant emotion that is difficult to name or explain. Maybe you chalk it up to feeling “off” or “upset.”

But finding more precise labels for our emotions can help us feel better—both in the moment and over the long term. This precise labeling of emotions is called emotional granularity.

The Benefits of Emotional Granularity
Emotional granularity is a skill, and researchers have demonstrated its important role in psychological well-being for decades. For example, a 2015 review of the research on emotional granularity found that folks who could differentiate their emotions while experiencing intense distress were less likely to engage in potentially harmful coping strategies, such as binge drinking, lashing out at others, and hurting themselves.

This means a person who describes feeling “angry,” “disappointed,” “sad,” or “ashamed” in the context of, let’s say, a conflict with a friend is likely to cope more effectively with those feelings than a person who uses vague descriptions, such as feeling “bad” or “upset.”

Impressively, the benefits of emotional granularity extend beyond any specific moment of distress. That same 2015 review found that people who describe and label their emotions more specifically have less severe episodes of anxiety and depression.

How Emotional Granularity Works
How does using more specific language to describe unpleasant experiences reduce distress? A straightforward answer is this: The more accurately we can describe our emotional experience and the context in which the experience is happening, the more information we have to decide what will help. Neuroscience even suggests that labeling our emotions can decrease activity in brain areas associated with negative emotions.

Yet a more nuanced answer requires us to take a step back and look at the components from which our emotions are made.
Start by answering a simple question: What are emotions?

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett succinctly sums up emotion as “your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean about what is going on around you in the world.” Imagine this: Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and you’re short of breath. If you are walking down a dark street alone at night, you might label your experience as fear. Now, imagine you are experiencing those same physical sensations while enjoying a candle-lit meal with a romantic interest. In that case, you might label the experience as attraction.

Thus, the same constellation of physiologic experiences organizes us around different actions depending on the context. In the first example, our fear functions to keep us safe and readies us to fight, flee, or freeze. In the second example, our attraction functions to focus our attention on our love interest, thus increasing our connectedness (and therefore regulation and well-being).

Importantly, our personal histories determine what predictions and needs we might have in any specific context. Throughout our lives, we collect diverse emotional experiences, typically first labeled by our early caregivers, which help us categorize and form our emotion concepts—the diverse collection of physical sensations, thoughts, and situations we learn to associate with a particular emotion.

Our concept of anger, for example, may include a flushed face, muscle tension, and being cut off in traffic. Our concept of anger may also have a racing heart, the urge to speak loudly, and thoughts of being taken for granted by a relationship partner. These categorizations help us to navigate our physiology in the context of the specific situation, to figure out if we should take a breath and focus on a podcast—if, say, we were cut off in traffic—or use communication skills to improve our relationship if we’re feeling taken for granted.

More precise language leads to more tailored responses (“mild annoyance” cues letting it go, whereas “outrage” cues advocating for change). Not only that, more precise language can allow us to incorporate details that create a different emotion category altogether. For example, if you home in to notice and describe hunger during a relational conflict, you may save yourself from experiencing anger.

How to Strengthen Emotional Granularity
Precisely labeling your emotional experiences, then, is likely to improve your quality of life. But how should you go about developing this skill? Experts recommend creating new emotion concepts and examining our existing concepts more closely.

In her book How Emotions Are Made, Feldman Barrett suggests that one of the easiest ways to build new emotion concepts is to learn new words. She also suggests we can add to our emotion concepts by being “collector(s) of experiences” through perspective-taking (e.g., reading books, watching movies) and trying new things.

To start, explore the emotion words collected in the list below. Find one or two words you don’t typically use and ask yourself if they describe your recent experiences. Perhaps when you next notice that nagging, nameless emotion, you will skim this list of emotion words to find the ones that resonate.

Katrina McCoy, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, educator, consultant, and scholar with a private practice based in Westchester, New York.


Name That Feeling

Happy, sad, and angry are useful terms but aren’t enough to describe the full range of our emotional experience. Explore this list to identify emotion words that better capture your feelings.





Hannah Whitaker / Used with permission.
Hannah Whitaker / Used with permission.


You’ve Named Your Emotions—What Now?

Being aware of your emotions isn’t enough; you also have to manage them. These four strategies can help you master this second pillar of emotional intelligence.

By Michael Wiederman, Ph.D.

Awareness of your and others’ emotions is the foundation on which emotional intelligence rests. But awareness, in itself, is not enough. Here, let’s consider four ways you can develop another critical pillar of EI: emotional self-management.

1. Pause to mentally distance.
In an emotionally charged situation, the path of least resistance is to follow your feelings. Instead, take conscious control of your attention and shift from allowing your limbic system to guide your behavior (reacting) to engaging your cerebral cortex (responding). Doing so lets you choose how to act.

Of course, mentally stepping out of a whirlwind of emotion is easier said than done. As a first step, it can be helpful to note the particular physical experiences that accompany troublesome emotions. Then, when a situation arises that triggers those physical responses, take a moment to mentally step out of your immediate experience. Asking yourself a question, or imagining what you might look like to others, often does the trick. At that point, although still physiologically keyed up, you’ll be able to more calmly consider the best course of action. In other words, you won’t be just reacting; you’ll be choosing how to act.

2. Take control of your self-talk.
We’re frequently unaware of how much chatter goes on in the background of our minds. Such self-talk might not be in fully articulated phrases but just flashes of thought about what’s happening, what should be, or how right we are and how wrong someone else is.

Becoming aware of your self-talk is an important skill because it is those background beliefs that fuel our emotional responses. To genuinely defuse a strong negative emotion requires examining the underlying belief and how accurate or useful it is.

You may be tempted to justify the belief (This situation should not be so difficult!) but, instead, recognize that the situation is the way it is, no matter how much you wish otherwise. Ask yourself: How useful is it to me to keep clinging to this belief? You might also flex your conscious awareness to focus on asking: Over what parts of this situation do I have some degree of control? What do I need to do to exercise that control?

3. Enlist partners.
Ask others you trust to help you recognize when your emotions seem to be getting the best of you. Agree on a gesture or word to serve as a signal that your trusted individual wonders whether you’re riding the led-by-your-limbic-system train.

Of course, they may get it wrong—and even when they’re right, it can feel irritating to be called out when you’re already keyed up. But instead of responding defensively, focus on the fact that this person is offering a gift—one that you asked for!—and is taking a risk. Respond with grace and gratitude.

4. Cultivate curiosity.
Our brains are wired to draw conclusions quickly. These judgments are not necessarily accurate but often feel as if they are, and they are responsible for many of our negative emotional states. Working to be more curious about other peoples’ experiences, including their interpretation of events and their own motives for their behavior, helps inhibit such hasty judgments.

To be able to apply the brakes on your strong emotional reaction when triggered, practicing curiosity in situations that are not nearly as charged is a good way to build that skill for when it’s most important. A side benefit of cultivating curiosity is that it also promotes a sense of empathy and deeper connection with those you better try to understand.

A common thread across these strategies is the ability to recognize an emotional storm and decide to shift to conscious intentionality rather than reaction. Like any skill, it requires practice, and there will be lapses along the way. However, the benefits, both professional and personal, can be immense. How might your life be enhanced by greater emotional self-control?

Michael Wiederman, Ph.D., is a former clinical psychology professor who now works full-time applying psychology to the workplace.


Emotional Intelligence Is a Skill Set

Peter Salovey, a co-author of the original paper on EI, clears up some widespread misunderstandings.

In the late 1980s, John Mayer and I noticed that there were separate groups studying facial expressions, emotion vocabulary, and emotion self-management, all independently. We thought there was a framework under which all those topics fit—an arsenal of skills that describe abilities having to do with the emotions. We called it “emotional intelligence.”

The skills form four basic clusters. The first is identifying emotions in yourself and in others, through verbal and nonverbal means.

A second is understanding how emotion vocabulary gets used, how emotions transition over time, what the consequences are of an emotional arousal—for example, why shame often leads to anger, why jealousy often contains a component of envy.

A third area is emotion management, which includes managing not only one’s own emotions but also the emotions of others.

The fourth is the use of emotions, such as in cognitive activities like solving a problem and making a decision.

Once we had a way to measure emotional intelligence, we realized that we had to demonstrate that EI matters above and beyond standard features of personality, such as the Big Five personality traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and extraversion) and beyond traditional intelligence as measured by an IQ test. Only if emotional intelligence still accounted for variance in important outcomes could we claim that it has validity.

Over the next 20 years, we showed that, in fact, it did predict outcomes in school, at work, and in relationships. It predicted who would receive positive performance evaluations and get recommended for raises, who would be viewed as contributing the most creative ideas and leading a group. It correlated with aspects of friendship and positive social relations—less aggression, less use of illicit substances, more friends, greater satisfaction in relationships with friends. In lab experiments, EI predicted subjects’ behavior with a stranger: Those with EI were more able to elicit information, and strangers rated the interaction as more pleasant. People viewing films of the interactions rated those with EI as more empathic.

There has been a lot of playing with the construct of emotional intelligence—for example, regarding the features as traits. But that does not yield any unique information. I think it’s best to stick to a definition of EI based on skills and abilities.

Peter Salovey, Ph.D., is the president of Yale University.

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