Choose the Path to a Happy Life
Many psychologists now believe that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ—both at work and at play
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
Glenn Hinds was anxious as he prepared to play in the first round of his golf club’s singles championship. But rather than ignoring his nerves and getting on with it, as he had always done, the 50-year-old training consultant from Derry in Northern Ireland applied some of the lessons he’d just learned on a work course.
He got into his car and consciously took a moment to notice how he was feeling. This prompted a series of small realizations. “First of all, this was just a game of golf,” Glenn says. “Secondly, I wanted to win but could lose and, thirdly, the chances were that I’d get some stick from my mates. But in terms of the big picture I would be OK.”
He was a man transformed. “My fear went away and I went out there relaxed.” Not only did he win that game, but he was victorious in the next six matches and became club champion for 2016.
Glenn was drawing on his training in emotional intelligence, the ability to perceive and manage emotions in ourselves and others. Emotional intelligence—or emotion quotient (EQ)—is a relatively new branch of psychology, first defined by US researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer in the 1990s and popularized by science journalist and psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
Goleman identifies several key characteristics of emotional intelligence: self-awareness (understanding our own emotions); self-regulation (staying in control); motivation (self-discipline); empathy (understanding and sharing the feelings of others); and social skills (building self-confidence).
Perhaps surprisingly, EQ has little to do with showing your feelings or with national characteristics.
“Emotional intelligence is related to the capacity to see what is happening in the face of a colleague and to understand what you are feeling in a given moment,” explains Dr Edgar Bresó, a social psychologist at the Jaume I University in Castellón, Spain.
It’s often assumed that women, traditionally caring and compassionate, are more emotionally literate than men, but it’s not that simple.
“Women are stronger in empathy but men are stronger in navigating emotions,” says Maria Olsson, European regional network director of Six Seconds, a non-profit organization dedicated to emotional intelligence.
Emotional literacy is particularly prized in the workplace. It’s now considered that EQ, rather than IQ, is what determines success, with intellectual ability accounting for only about 10 to 25 per cent of the variance in job performance.
“Knowledge on its own is not enough to be competent in today’s world,” says Dr Bresó. “Phones and PCs can provide more knowledge than you can learn in your lifetime. We are more competent in some intellectual tasks if we are more competent in our emotions, because when we have a clear idea about our feelings, it’s easier to make decisions. Emotions are much more important than data.”
Studies have shown that workers with a high EQ tend to be more productive, stay in their jobs longer and earn more than their less emotionally literate colleagues. People with good emotional intelligence are more likely to be promoted, because they can identify the emotions of their superiors and continually adapt to other people.
While emotional intelligence is considered innate, many psychologists believe it can be improved. “You can train people to be more emotionally aware,” says organizational psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper from Manchester Business School in the UK. “You don’t either have it or not have it. It’s a continuum.”
Dutch bank ING provided EQ training for its financial markets sales staff to build trust and temper the kind of greed and fear that can lead to knee-jerk reactions on trading floors. Staff engagement was higher afterwards and sales revenue increased faster than the industry average.
Emotional intelligence is also helpful in the caring professions. “People in medicine, social work, nursing and clinical psychology need to have a substantial amount of EQ to do their job effectively,” says Professor Cooper. Research in Norway, for instance, suggests that training health staff to take emotions more seriously could help prevent depression in new mothers.
But EQ is also important in everyday life. “Good emotional intelligence makes us happier and more satisfied and offers protection against psychological problems such as anxiety and depression,” says Moïra Mikolajczak, professor of emotion and health psychology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.
She likens this protective effect to carrying a tray. “If the arm is strong—if you have good emotional intelligence—you’re going to be able to place a lot of glasses on the tray before your arm gives way. If your emotional intelligence is weak, the slightest upset can be a problem—one glass is fine, but put another one on and crash!”
If you don’t recognize the early signs of stress, it’s much more difficult to regulate your emotions once they have built up to dangerous levels. You may end up overreacting when a partner or child says or does something minor and then regretting it. If a pattern develops, it’s a recipe for unhappiness.
EQ also affects our health. Professor Mikolajczak conducted research into the effect of EQ for a large Belgian health organization. “The higher the level of emotional intelligence, the less medication people took, the less they went to the doctor or were hospitalized,” she says.
While a high EQ doesn’t guarantee you won’t fall ill, she says, poor emotional intelligence is much more likely to lead to poor health, notably cardiovascular and digestive problems resulting from raised stress levels.
Where emotional intelligence really makes an impact is in our relationships. “In your friendships, with your neighbors, with people you’re in contact with at the school gate, wherever you are in life, having EQ can be a really positive attribute,” says Professor Cooper.
“If you decide you want to cut down a tree and it’s on the border with your neighbor, if you have good EQ you will go to your neighbor and talk about it. They may like that tree. It’s about empathy. You may have to rely on that neighbor at an important time in life.”
And let’s not forget success in love. “Couples where both partners are emotionally intelligent last longer,” confirms Moïra Mikolajczak.
Being emotionally intelligent also helps us bring up our children to be happier, more successful adults.
Nomeda Maraziene, a doctor and psychologist from Vilnius, Lithuania, works to boost emotional intelligence in young people in a country that has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and, according to a 2013 Unicef report, high numbers of unhappy children. She begins her EQ training with the parents, teachers and other adults who act as children’s role models.
“The work of EQ starts with us as adults to increase self-awareness, optimism and inner motivation because we are responsible for the emotional content we spread around us,” she says. “It is our responsibility to be the best possible version of ourselves in terms of attitudes, beliefs and expectations.”
Otherwise, Maraziene fears, there could be a price to pay. Egocentric behavior is one possible outcome. “If we don’t develop children’s empathy, that could lead to isolation and an individualistic approach which means teamwork isn’t possible.”
She emphasizes the importance of teamwork and community. “Unconditional respect is the key ingredient. Everyone has the right to his or her personal opinion and then we can discuss it and agree or disagree.”
Maraziene recently worked with a foster center to increase self-esteem among children who had experienced psychological and physical harm, and rejection. To build up their empathy and sense of responsibility, the young people helped out at a dog rescue center, walking and caring for the dogs.
These and other activities bore fruit. In particular, two very withdrawn girls opened up. “They started to debate, not only talking but expressing their opinion and expanding on it.”
So how can we boost our own emotional intelligence? “The most important competence is being able to perceive our own emotions,” says Dr Edgar Bresó. “So before a meeting, before selling a car, before beginning a task, just take a moment to think, ‘Where am I? Am I in a good place? Am I too negative or too positive?’”
We can also develop techniques to regulate our emotions. “If you know you are going to get angry with your partner, just say to yourself, ‘OK, I’m going to leave the room and take a deep breath,’” suggests Moïra Mikolajczak. “Then go outside and do nothing for two minutes.” And she points out that for someone in a very stressful job, it could be worth taking leave at frequent intervals—for example, a week every two months.
Improving emotional intelligence doesn’t happen overnight. “It takes time and practice,” says golf enthusiast Glenn Hinds. But there’s little doubt that in today’s high-tech, high-octane world we should perhaps worry less about IQ and emphasize EQ if we want to lead a happier, healthier life.