What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is about people – you & others – thoughts, feelings, intentions, cultures, background, tendencies, sensitivities, habits, etc. It is the capacity to identify, regulate, express, manage, react to, respond to, use, and acknowledge emotions. It’s often dubbed as EQ (emotional quotient) and is one of the many ways human intelligence is measured.
So before we get to how to increase emotional intelligence, let us understand what emotions really are and how you can think about emotions intelligently.
Thinking about emotions intelligently
You can describe 6 properties of any emotion and consequently, ask 6 types of questions which can give you great insight into your emotional side. These dimensions contain information which can help you manage, identify, and express emotions appropriately.
- Variability: What is the range of emotions you experience? Are there nuanced differences that you find meaningful?
- Intensity: How powerful is your emotional experience or memory of emotional events?
- Frequency: How often do you experience a particular emotion or a set of emotions?
- Potency: How strong an influence does a particular emotion have on your behavior and thoughts?
- Valence: Is the experience good or bad? Does it have individual goodness and badness in it?
- Excitation/Inhibition & Arousal: Did you feel like holding back your emotion or was it already thwarted unintentionally (inhibition)? Did you feel a push with the emotion (excitation)? Arousal indicates being physically and mentally charged up. Some emotions are high arousal like agitation and some are low arousal like calmness.
Having answers to these questions is a great way to become emotionally self-aware. Understanding these characteristics can improve your base-line emotional literacy.
Reflect: Take a moment to think about your most recent emotional experience and try to run that experience through these 6 dimensions to see what you learn.
Difference between Affect, Emotions, and Mood
In psychology, affect is used to describe the essence of a feeling or emotion. Affect is a simplified experience of an emotion. It has 2 main properties.
- Valence: How positive or negative a feeling is. Ranges from pleasant to unpleasant. Sadness is a negative Affect and joy is a positive Affect.
- Arousal: How energetic your feeling is. Ranges from calm to agitated. Feeling calm is low arousal and feeling anger is high arousal.
On the other hand, Emotion is a more complex concept involving motivation, specific feelings, details, physical state, unique reactions, etc. Affect and Emotions are both short-lived (less than a few minutes), but a mood is long-lasting (a few hours to days). Emotions involve bodily sensations and facial & bodily expressions. Affect is a stripped-down version of the emotion with a valence (+ve to -ve) and overall arousal (low to high).
However, researchers have used both words interchangeably across decades of research.
Mood, unlike emotions, is a global tendency to experiences a specific category of emotions more often over a long duration. A mood is subjective and contains a fairly inflexible mental state. Emotions and Affect are significantly different from the previous mental state. But it also has the properties of Affect.
For example, a low-mood can be negatively valenced with a high frequency of sadness, numbness, discomfort, etc. An agitated mood could have a high frequency of irritation, anger, and anxiety. So Mood has variability which describes the range and type of Emotions or Affect one experiences over time.
Layers of human emotion
Emotions don’t occur in isolation. They range from deeply private experiences to publically social experiences. Human emotions can be conceptually layered where each layer forms a part of an emotional experience.
1. Sensory input: We have about 10 sensory systems that provide valuable information to your brain. And this information later informs our thoughts and feelings. We usually tend to think about emotional responses to what we see, hear, and touch. However, we have strong emotional responses to other sensory information. For example, our vestibular sense (balance & motion, inside the ear canals) can lead to negative emotions about an experience. An imbalance in this system leads to motion sickness and a beautiful road trip can turn into a miserable experience because of it. Here is another example – discomfort due to tight clothes and shoes can change how sensitive your mind is with respect to negative thoughts. It could unnecessarily amplify distressing thoughts or your emotional reactions.
2. Bodily and mental arousal: Heart rate, pupil dilation, muscle tension, fatigue, stiffness, lethargy, blood pressure, facial expressions, body posture, horniness, mental energy, and your body’s readiness to do something is a part of emotional arousal. Arousal is the level of your body and mind’s readiness to engage in an activity. In an aroused state, you are biologically more active and attentive. Arousal is closely related to motivation. In fact, emotions are a part of motivation. Sadness can demotivate you and a lack of motivation can make you sad. Happiness can make you more receptive to doing something and doing something can make you happy. The point is, arousal, motivation, and emotions are closely tied together through a wide range of physiological and psychological mechanisms.
3. The actual emotions: One of the first things we learn as a species is expressions and how they make us feel. When a parent shouts at a child or praises a child, the foundation of emotions is cemented. We associate this basic behavior and expressions with words. This is extremely easy because emotions are embedded in our biology. Disgust and physical withdrawal, for example, is a very common reaction to something you don’t like. Noxious smells induce disgust and that is a universal phenomenon.
4. The general mood: If emotions are the fruits of a tree, the mood is the ecosystem. Emotions can be very specific but moods can be broad and general. Some emotions are more likely to occur in a specific mood. For example, if your basic mood is passive and you are in an unreceptive state, authoritative advice and criticism can irritate you more than necessary. A mood lays the foundation and a context for various emotional and cognitive tendencies. These include how intense an emotion feels, how often it occurs, what information you pay attention to, etc. A state of heightened physical arousal can amplify worrying. This brings us to point 5 and 6.
5. Meta-cognitive input: Think of all the worries and fears you’ve had. The insecurities you’ve had and how you dealt with those. Think of the experiences which made you feel proud and accomplished. When you think about thoughts and emotions which have already occurred, you are engaging in meta-cognition – thinking about thinking. This becomes a second-layer of raw material for thinking. Metacognition is highly dynamic; what you think about existing thoughts and feelings is completely in your control. That is why there ways to stop overthinking – you get to control how you experience your thoughts.
6. Social contexts: Emotions are often associated with people and evolutionary psychology has given us some insight into how emotions facilitate interpersonal relationships. In fact, a large aspect of emotions is our social nature. For example, anger is a social emotion that probably has an evolutionary purpose of negotiating better behavior from others. Emotions are a way to communicate our internal mental state to others at an intuitive level. Facial expressions help us decode other’s internal states. Think about it for a minute, why would emotions evolve to have dedicated facial expressions and vocalizations (cry, laugh, change in vocal pitch, speed of talking, etc.)? These revolve around communication with others (including animals). Facial expression and emotions are partly bound together (even for Ray Holt) because they extend the capacity of understanding in social situations.
Ways to increase EQ: The self & emotional intelligence
The first most important skill is to regulate and manage your emotions. You may have heard of emotional regulation or self-regulation. It is the ability to understand, use, guide, and manage your own emotions in day-to-day situations.
- Talk about your anxiety in using 3rd person pronouns (he, they) instead of 1st person (I, me). This will help you distance your feelings from your-self and make them easier to digest. I highly recommend reading about the construal level theory in this article to make sense of this recommendation.
- Listen to music. This will help you change your mental context. Music is powerful in regulating emotions. Not just upbeat music, any type of music. Especially if you are a fan of it.
- Take a walk in nature. Interacting with nature and it’s lifeforms creates a general sense of well-being and satisfaction in most humans. That is called biophilia. Connect with nature so your negative emotions can dissipate. It also will shield you from depressive and anxiety symptoms. Forest bathing is one approach to regulate mental health.
- Learn to make emotional decisions consciously. It’s important to know how to convey emotional messages to others. It is also important to notice what thoughts are an emotional trigger for you. Being a little mindful and self-aware can help reduce emotional damage (like snapping at others).
- Pay attention to the details of your experience without judgment. General self-awareness has a sweet spot. On one side you have total cluelessness which causes confusion, anxiety, and stress. And on the other, you have overthinking which causes uncertainty, lack of faith, anxiety, and stress. Find your sweet spot where you are aware but not over-interpreting things.
- Work on thinking with minimal biases. It’s a good idea to overcome mental biases that force you to think in certain ways and misinterpret events in life. The negativity bias (focusing and remembering negative events more) and confirmation bias (focusing on things which confirm your preconceived notions, etc.) need to be occasionally addressed. Forming a habit to overcome these thinking biases is a good start to regulate emotional thoughts.
Build emotional sensitivity. Learn about the various emotional processes that take place in your body. Learn the names of emotions, learn that emotions can have a positive or negative valence, learn that they can be non-dichotomous, learn that they can be mixed. Sometimes they are complex and of low intensity. Sometimes they are simple and high intensity.
Understand that you are entitled to your ideas and opinions but they can be wrong and unwarranted. Contexts matter and your subjective feelings can be maladaptive, distressing, and unfair to yourself. To counter this, a certain level of mental flexibility and ownership in being wrong is important.
Emotional/cognitive reappraisal is another common strategy to rethink emotions. This skill is about reframing your emotional thoughts in a less intense and more acceptable way. If confrontations are crippling and the associated emotions make you feel aversive to them, you can reappraise those thoughts and reframe angry confrontations with “an opportunity to solve a problem.”
Know when to focus on the general emotion or it’s detailed nuances, details can lead to overthinking and sometimes, the solution is to deal with the broad emotion.
Ways to increase EQ: Theory of mind and empathy
- The theory of mind framework in psychology explains how humans are unique but have the capacity to understand others and their points of view. It is the ability to focus on the outside in a way you internally resonate. The most useful part of this is called empathy. Empathy is of 4 types – cognitive, emotional, compassionate, and expressed. All 4 are important for emotional intelligence to be “useful.”
- Cognitive empathy – the ability to understand and comprehend someone else’s point of view. This is a thinking process where effort is put to understand others even if the context is alien to you. This takes a lot of effort for some people but most people have the capacity to do this. It’s just often ignored.
- Emotional empathy – the ability to understand and feel what others are feeling. You may have some first-hand experience that you can draw upon to relate to others. That’s when the emotions involved are more realistic for you.
- Expressed empathy – the ability to put thoughts and feelings in the context of empathy into words and communicate them. Practice rephrasing, ask insightful questions, or simply acknowledge what you are listening to.
- Compassionate empathy – the ability to extend kindness, concern, and care in times of suffering.
- Soft skills like communication, listening, body language, etc. are hard to learn without feeling like they are “prescribed.” It’s a good idea to model your behavior over someone you admire or consider emotionally intelligent. Learn from multiple people.
- People come from various contexts and cultures. Exposing yourself to these cultures is useful in understanding them. The variety of people’s backgrounds can be astonishing. People can be very similar but they often emerge from a unique set of details.
Common activities to increase emotional intelligence and literacy
- Read fiction & non-fiction.
- Talk to people.
- Explore what-if scenarios.
- Identify your emotions.
- Pay attention to facial expressions and sounds.
- Pay attention to how human voices change.
- Don’t compartmentalize emotions and thoughts separately, let them inform each other.
- Meditate & be mindful.
- Have new experiences (get out of your comfort zone).
- Learn about various cultures.
- Go through the list of emojis on your phone and try to recognize each one.
- Update cultural shifts in emotional contexts like unique feelings expressed on the internet – KMN, Welp, etc.
- Notice how others respond to your emotions.
- Notice what relaxes you and what arouses you.
- Introspect and observe to figure out which contexts, triggers, or events make your emotions hard to manage.
Measuring emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence, according to the Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI), is defined to have 4 components: Self-awareness, Self-management, Social skills, and Social awareness. It constitutes the ability to think about emotions, manage and identify emotions, utilize emotions in useful ways, and minimize damage caused by emotional situations in personal and social contexts. All of these are closely associated with emotional regulation skills, a more practical approach to dealing with emotions.
In a sense, emotional intelligence is more about a mix of important information, skills, and contexts about emotions that affect us. It’s an interpersonal & intrapersonal skill.
However, there are some psychological tests that measure various aspects of emotional intelligence based on how the test defines it. Usually, they measure emotional identification, uses, empathy, expression, and regulation.
List of emotion words
So that’s that. Emotional intelligence isn’t very intense in theory and not too hard in implementation either. So if you feel you need more of it, follow the recommendations in this article with a little deliberate effort.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced in Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, a few books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.