Emotional intelligence is a psychology buzzword, buzzing around the internet and from some lips. But what is it? ‘Emotional intelligence’ is a phrase invented by Michael Bledoche in 1964, theories by Yale Professor Peter Salovey in the 1980s and popularised by Daniel Coleman in the 1990s. The term describes the ability to understand and handle our emotions and those of others.

But what is emotional intelligence, really?

Emotional intelligence is pretty much a neat word to encapsulate social skills, intuition, and compassion; emotional intelligence frames emotions as though they were measurable, profitable. controllable and therefore legitimate to our cultural biases. But then, as with compromising with the powers that be – a buzzword does make people pay respectful attention to empathy, compassion and intuition. The conflation with the old world of reasonable intelligence with the ostensibly unreasonable of emotion illustrates a cultural shift and the advent of psychological understanding and terminology at a societal scale.

Consider this book description for its populariser: “bestselling author Daniel Goleman found that it is twice as important as other competencies in determining outstanding leadership”. Being a leader here is presumed the ambition for everyone, despite the lack of correspondence to statistical reality – by nature, followers have to be the majority. Emotional intelligence is more about wellbeing and succeeding yes, but in a healthy easy that prioritises personal achievement before becoming a leader oneself; perhaps that is not be most intelligent choice depending on your personality.

Let’s deconstruct the parts of emotional intelligence.

1. Empathy

The ability to label emotions and understand the emotions of oneself and others. Having empathy and compassion is useful for optimism – by being compassionate you can forgive yourself imperfection and not blame other people as though it were reasoned out rather than emotion or whim that mostly caused upset.

2. Social skills

To focus on the other persons making each feel they are valuable and worthwhile in themselves rather than for you. Though, an emotional intelligent person as with empathy will have a mutual exchange rather than subservience.

3. Self-regulation
Ability to manage and predict your own emotional fluctuations and their causes.

4. Self-awareness

Strangely self-awareness is best figured from an awareness of other people’s difference and how they may perceive you. Being self-aware is about realizing how you are different, and are conscious of the way you act.

5. Motivation

An intrinsic and emotionally rewarding motivation for doing what you do.

For many readers, these may be obvious and intuitive, or even too vague (I agree). Arguably that’s because our intelligence centred especially in the prefrontal cortex is very different from our emotions and nonverbal readings. Nonetheless, it has been shown that a linguistic awareness of these behaviours can help people become more self-regulating, motivated, aware, skilled and empathic.

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University who says:

You’ve probably never thought about learning words as a path to greater emotional health, but it follows directly from the neuroscience of construction. Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget, and your body budget determines how you feel. Therefore, the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs. In fact, people who exhibit higher emotional granularity go to the doctor less frequently, use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for an illness.

She recommends treating your emotions essentially with words – as granular, a metaphor for nuanced, and complex – for instance saying disappointed, shocked, over-expectant or tiffed instead of default sad. When you think about we do have a strangely limited repertoire for ourselves. And that repertoire genuinely limits what we can feel.

Barrett goes so far as to say emotions are partially cultually relative, because of words:

Via How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

“I felt sadness in that moment because, having been raised in a certain culture, I learned long ago that “sadness” is something that may occur when certain bodily feelings coincide with terrible loss. Using bits and pieces of past experience, such as my knowledge of shootings and my previous sadness about them, my brain rapidly predicted what my body should do to cope with such tragedy. Its predictions caused my thumping heart, my flushed face, and the knots in my stomach. They directed me to cry, an action that would calm my nervous system. And they made the resulting sensations meaningful as an instance of sadness. In this manner, my brain constructed my experience of emotion.”

Which intriguingly fits with research that readers are more empathetic and with what Shakespeare, Saint Paul and Marcus Aurelius who said: “all is as thinking makes it so”, centuries before. That ‘all’ is a bit much, as are her claims she could not feel a nuance of sadness about a bereavement in a different culture, but still—commentary does alter things a useful amount. That is part of the secret to mindfulness booming (yet another invented term for pre-existent behaviour), nonjudgemental distance from the ever-changing self.

Having read this would you say you’re more emotionally intelligent? I hope so, (probably more cynical) but as Aristotle counters: goodness must be cultivated, rather than decided. And that cultivation applies to everything, emotions included.

And really we could all do with more intuition and social acumen, I certainly could.