Let your emotions make you smarter

Thursday, April 21, 2005

As we get older, we must start seeming less intelligent to the younger generation. We don't know who "Queens of the Stone Age" are (my sources tell me they are a "hot" band), we don't really understand the concept of "hooking up."

And they surely notice when we say we can't find our damn glasses even though they are perched prominently on the top of our heads.

Do we really get dumber as we get older? It does seem that our mean Wechsler IQ scores do decline as we age. However, social scientists have long been interested in the fact that we possess different kinds of intelligence. For example, while our "process efficiency" decreases with age, we do have the benefit of our "crystallized intelligence" -- our specialized, "expert" knowledge -- increasing as we get older.

But what we lose in overall IQ points, perhaps we gain in "wisdom points." Just maybe we actually learn something from our time logged on this earth, the hundreds of thousands of interactions we have had with our fellow humans, the children we have raised, the intimate partners with whom we have negotiated life's erratic pathways.

It is quite possible that all of this experience dealing with the full range of human emotions just might make us smarter -- emotionally smarter.

Emotional intelligence is a concept that became part of our collective consciousness with the 1995 publication of Dr. Daniel Goleman's best-selling book "Emotional Intelligence." He notes the importance of emotional intelligence in our lives: "How adept a person is at [the skills of emotional intelligence] is crucial to understanding why one person thrives in life while another, of equal intellect, dead-ends: Emotional aptitude is a meta-ability, determining how well we use whatever other skills we have, including raw intellect."

What exactly is emotional intelligence?

Dr. Goleman defines it as a set of competencies: the ability to motivate oneself, persistence in the face of frustrations, control of impulse and the ability to delay gratification, ability to regulate mood and remain clear thinking in the face of distress, the ability to empathize with others and the capacity to be hopeful and optimistic.

In his book, Dr. Goleman discusses some of the emotionally intelligent aptitudes we need to develop.

He is definitely on board with Socrates: Know thyself. Self-awareness is a key competency. He defines this aptitude as an "ongoing awareness to one's internal states." He emphasizes knowing yourself in a nonreactive and nonjudgmental way.

Think about it: You can't get out of a funk unless you can first recognize you are in one.

Goleman is talking about emotional regulation, not being, as Hamlet put it, "passion's slave." He is talking about aspiring to the temperate life.

Since all feelings have value and significance, Goleman points out that the goal here is not suppression, but balance. We need to experience the full range of emotion in order to be fully alive. What we have to avoid is becoming too attached to the extremes of emotion, and allowing our emotions to overwhelm our abilities to reason.

Emotions can do what they are intended -- move us toward productive action -- or derail us from our goals by overwhelming us. The ability to channel our emotions in order to "guide effective effort" is what Goleman calls the "master aptitude."

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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