by Julia Getzelman, MD

It’s January 2020, and there are a lot of heavy things happening in the world. Meanwhile, at home, the transition back to “regular life” after the holidays may be proving to be messy. You might be at the point of telling yourself or your partner to “push through!” while telling your kids to stop arguing and put their socks on already. Why would anyone choose this month to focus on emotional intelligence while so many issues—global crises, daily demands, and the challenge of establishing new habits—are smacking us in the face?

It’s simple. I believe that with greater emotional intelligence, we can change the world. Studies have shown that people with higher emotional intelligence make better decisions. In addition, people with higher emotional intelligence are happierthey don’t get bogged-down by things they can’t control, they live by their values, and they keep a growth mindset. Amazing, right?

It seems there’s no better time than right now to cultivate emotional intelligence, both in ourselves and in our children.

What Exactly Is Emotional Intelligence?

We’ve all heard the term, but let’s step back for a moment. What is emotional intelligence? Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. John Mayer and Peter Solavey coined the term, and Daniel Goleman popularized it beginning with his book, Emotional Intelligence, published in 1995.

Emotional intelligence is generally considered to have five parts:

  • Emotional self-awareness or being aware of what one is feeling, moment to moment, as well as seeking to understand the impact one’s emotional state has on others.
  • Self-regulation or attempting to control or redirect one’s emotions and learning to anticipate the consequences before acting on impulse.
  • Motivation or using emotional factors to overcome and persevere.
  • Empathy or learning how to tune in and sense the emotions of others.
  • Social skills or learning how to effectively manage relationships and inspire others.

How Can You Increase Your Emotional Intelligence?

Knowing that greater emotional intelligence leads to better decision making and higher levels of happiness, you may be wondering how to get more of it. One excellent way is through a gratitude practice. Cultivating gratitude brings us emotional self-awareness when we address the question, “What am I grateful for?” It also helps us to self-regulate emotionally when we consider, “How can I become more grateful, so that I’m happier and more effective in everyday life?” In my own gratitude practice which I wrote about last month, I have begun actively looking for the things I’ll add to my gratitude journal at the end of the day, and this is creating all kinds of positive shifts for me.

You could also incorporate these three steps into your life:

  • Recognize your emotions and name them. Take a moment to name your feelings and adjust your reactivity. Having trouble naming your feelings? The iGrok app has lots of suggestions to help you move beyond happy, sad, and angry.
  • Ask for feedback from others. You could ask family, friends, or coworkers about how they think you respond to difficult situations, how adaptable and empathetic you are, or how well you handle conflict. It might be challenging to hear this feedback, so be ready to be open and curious about their answers rather than defensive.
  • Read literature with complex characters. Studies show that this type of reading can improve your empathy, as well as help you gain insight into thoughts, motivations, and actions.

How Do We Help Our Children Build Their Emotional Intelligence?

The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, is an approachable, easy-to-follow guide for helping children to cultivate their emotional intelligence. The authors rely on brain science, as well as clinical and personal experience, to explain developmentally appropriate strategies for engaging with children. At the end of most chapters, they provide suggestions and exercises for adults to follow in order to grow their own emotional intelligence, too. I cannot recommend this slim book (under 200 pages!) highly enough. You can find a “refrigerator sheet summary” of the book here, and you can pick up a copy of the book for yourself at any bookseller or through your public library.

The book offers 12 strategies to help nurture your child’s developing mind, including:

  • Name It to Tame It: Reign-in raging right-brain behavior through left-brain storytelling. The left brain’s affinity for words and reasoning can help calm emotional storms and ease tension in the body.
  • Engage, Don’t Enrage: Keep your child thinking and listening, rather than reacting.
  • Move It or Lose It: Use physical activities to shift your child’s emotional state.
  • Let the Clouds of Emotion Roll By: Guide your children when they are stuck on a negative emotion, and help them understand that feelings come and go.
  • SIFT: Help children pay attention to the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts within them so that they can make better decisions and be more flexible.
  • Connect Through Conflict: Use discord to encourage empathy and greater social success.

Opportunities To Connect And Grow

Monday, January 20 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the only federal holiday to have been designated as a national day of service. Schools are generally closed, and if your schedule permits, it’s an excellent time to volunteer and connect with your community as a family. These kinds of activities are great opportunities for fun, personal growth, and of course, increasing emotional intelligence. Local organizations, including the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the East Bay Regional Parks have many outdoor projects that are designated as family-friendly, and there’s also a project in the East Bay on the Richmond Greenway. Sign-up in advance, and get ready for the satisfied, warm feelings that come from working with others in service of the community.