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3 ways to boost your emotional intelligence (according to neuroscience)

New research out of Northeastern University turns everything we know about emotions upside down.

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Her new book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain proposes a new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, the legal system, and our understanding of the human mind.

Her groundbreaking work suggests that emotions are not found somewhere in the brain.

And even more astounding, she shows that emotions are not universally felt: different cultures have different emotions.

Her findings also have implications for our understanding of emotional intelligence and what we can do to become more emotionally intelligent.

In this blog post at Barking Up The Wrong Tree, Eric Barker explains how these findings can help us increase our EQ.

Before we explain three ways to improve your emotional intelligence, the first point we need to understand is that emotions are concepts: They’re not hardwired or universal. We learn them in our culture. Different cultures have different emotions.

Barker quotes from Feldman Barrett’s book:

  • Norwegians have a concept for an intense joy of falling in love, calling it “Forelsket.”
  • The Japanese emotion concept “Arigata-meiwaku” is felt when someone has done you a favor that you didn’t want from them, and which may have caused difficulty for you, but you’re required to be grateful anyway.

Point is, you cannot feel “Forelsket”, if you’re not Norwegian and likewise you cannot feel “Arigata-meiwaku” if you’re not Japanese.

Having said that, how do we improve our emotional intelligence? Here are 3 ways:

1) Emotional intelligence starts with emotional granularity

The more time you take to distinguish the emotions you feel, to recognize them as distinct and different, the more emotionally intelligent you will become. This is called “emotional granularity.”

This means you want to be able to say more than “Me feel good” or “Me feel bad”.

As Barker puts it: “I see red, blue and green. An interior decorator sees periwinkle, salmon, sage, magenta and cyan.

“Similar to the interior decorator, emotionally intelligent people don’t say “me feel good.” They distinguish between happy, ecstatic, joyful and awesome.”

“So, a key to EI is to gain new emotion concepts and hone your existing ones,” says Barret Feldman.

Barker quotes from How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain:

“People who have major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders, borderline personality disorder, or who just experience more anxiety and depressed feelings all tend to exhibit lower granularity for negative emotion.

If you are able to exactly describe how you feel, you’re in a better position to do something constructive about it.

So, if you’re able to distinguish the more specific “I feel alone” from merely “I feel bad” you’re able to deal with the problem: you call a friend, explains Barker.

2) Use the dictionary to develop emotional intelligence

Learning more emotion words is the key to recognizing more subtle emotion concepts.

You can’t feel “Forelsket” if you don’t know what it is. So learn new emotion words so you can feel new emotions and increase your emotional granularity.

“Now being a Scrabble champ, by itself, doesn’t necessarily make you emotionally intelligent. You still need to sit with your emotions and spend the time to distinguish them and label them,” warns Barker.

So are you tired, exhausted, feeling listless or just lazy? Recognize your emotions. Make the feelings distinct.

3) Create new emotions

Sound strange, right? But according to Feldman Barrett creating new emotions is an excellent way to increase emotional intelligence.

For example, I know I have experienced emotions in the past that I could describe but had no name for. I had nothing to label this vague feeling I was experiencing. I just knew I was not sick but also not just tired or exhausted. I was just feeling “off”.

Feldman Barrett suggests that I find a name for that feeling – maybe “I have the ‘offs’”.

Or Barker’s example: That dread you feel on Sunday night knowing you need to go to work tomorrow? “Sunday-nitis.” Or that special something that you feel around your partner? “Passion-o-rama.”

It may sound silly but if you think about it, emotions like “sadness” or “anger” exist as constructs because we have agreed on it. We can agree on more. If I can describe my feeling to you exactly and give it a name, maybe you recognize it as well. By sharing the emotion with someone, it becomes more real and also recognized by others.

Remarks Barker: “In Japan they have ‘age-otori’ — ‘The feeling of looking worse after a haircut.’ We’ve all felt that. It just took one emotionally intelligent genius to give it a name.”

Brilliant – naming a specific feeling after a specific event. I’m sure we can all come up with some. Feel free to share your ideas.

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Written by Coert Engels

I'm a South African based writer and am passionate about exploring the latest ideas in artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology. I also focus on the human condition, with a particular interest human intuition and creativity. To share some feedback about my articles, email me at [email protected]

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