Emotional Intelligence, By Daniel Goleman: A Book Review

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A massive survey of parents and teachers shows a worldwide trend for the present generation of children to be more troubled emotionally than the last: more lonely and depressed, more angry and unruly, more nervous and prone to worry, more impulsive and aggressive. Goleman believes the remedy lies in how we prepare our young for life. At present we leave the emotional education of children to chance. We can no longer afford to do this.

As Aristotle saw, the problem is not with emotionality, but with the appropriateness of emotion and its expression. The question is, how can we bring intelligence to our emotions–and civility to our streets and caring to our communal life?

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Until recently, the emotions have been largely ignored by scientists. Seeking to “make sense out of the senseless,” Goleman tracks the progress of our scientific understanding of the irrational realms in order to understand what it means–and how–to bring intelligence to emotion: being able, for example, to rein in emotional impulse, to read another’s innermost feelings, to handle relationships smoothly–as Aristotle put it, the rare skill “to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, for the right purpose, and in the right way.”

Goleman seeks to guide us through the unparalleled burst of scientific studies of the emotions that have appeared over the last decade; most dramatic of which are the glimpses of the brain at work. These studies are enabling scientists to speak with authority on the nature of the irrational, and to map with some precision the human heart. This mapping challenges those who subscribe to a narrow view of human intelligence and argue that IQ is a genetic given that cannot be changed, and that our destiny is largely fixed by these aptitudes. It becomes apparent that a view of human nature that ignores the power of the emotions is shortsighted; feeling counts every bit as much–and often more–than thought. We have overemphasized the value of the purely rational–of IQ. “Intelligence comes to nothing when the emotions hold sway; passions overcome reason time and again.”

Emotions are, in essence, the impulses to act that evolution has instilled in us. Researchers are discovering more physiological details of how each emotion prepares the body for a very different kind of response. Goleman notes that while in the ancient past a hair-trigger anger may have offered a crucial edge for survival, the availability of automatic weaponry to thirteen-year-olds has made it too often a disastrous reaction.

The terrain Goleman covers is an ambitious one. He moves from documenting new discoveries about the brain’s architecture that offer an explanation of those moments in life when feeling overwhelms all rationality, to offer an expanded model of what it means to be “intelligent,” a model which puts emotions at the center of aptitudes for living.

In a very real sense, we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels, and two different kinds of intelligence, rational and emotional. How well we do in life is determined by both. The intellect cannot work at its best without emotional intelligence. What we want, Goleman asserts, is a balance of the two.

Goleman sees hope emerging through a new paradigm: The old paradigm held an ideal of reason freed of the pull of emotion. The new paradigm urges us to harmonize head and heart. To do that well we must first understand what it means to use emotion intelligently.

Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence is a relatively new concept, but rapidly accumulating data suggests it can be as powerful, and at times more powerful, than IQ. And while there are those who argue IQ can’t be changed much, research shows that crucial emotional competencies can be learned and improved upon.

Academic intelligence offers virtually no preparation for the turmoil or opportunities life brings. Despite the evidence that high IQ is no guarantee of success, our culture remains fixated on academic intelligence, ignoring emotional intelligence; yet emotional intelligence is crucial to understanding why one person thrives while another of equal intelligence does not. Goleman sees emotional aptitude as a meta-ability determining how well we use whatever other skills we have, including raw intellect. Research shows that people who are emotionally adept–who know and manage their own feelings well, and can read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings–are at an advantage in any domain of life, from romance to politics, and more likely to be content and effective in their lives. People who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.

Goleman is of like mind with Childre and Pearce in recognizing that the emotional brain can overpower, even paralyze, the thinking brain. Students who are angry, depressed, or anxious cannot take in information efficiently or deal with it well. Good moods enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity, making it easier to find solutions to problems, intellectual or personal. (This suggests a way to help someone think through a problem, rather than pressuring them to “think harder,” is to take a fun break or tell a joke.)

Researchers are finding that hope and optimism play a surprisingly potent role in life. People with optimism and hope bounce back from failures and approach things in terms of how to handle them rather than worrying about what can go wrong. Goleman emphasizes the fact that the emotions have a powerful effect on the autonomic nervous system, which regulates everything from how much insulin is secreted to what blood pressure levels are maintained. The cumulative evidence of the adverse medical effects of anger, anxiety, and depression is compelling. Chronic anger and anxiety can make people more susceptible to a range of disease; and depression impedes medical recovery and heightens risk of death. The good news is that if chronic emotional distress is toxic, the opposite range of emotions can be a tonic.

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Goleman points to family life as being our first school for emotional learning–not just through things parents say and do directly to their children, but in the models they offer for handling their own feelings. The way a couple handles the feelings between themselves imparts powerful lessons to their children. The three most emotionally inept parenting styles prove to be: 1) ignoring feelings altogether; 2) being too laissez faire; and 3) being contemptuous, and showing no respect for how a child feels. In contrast are those parents who seize the opportunity of a child’s upset to act as emotional coach or mentor. Taking their child’s feelings seriously, they try to understand what is upsetting them (Are you angry because Tommy hurt your feelings?); and to help children find positive ways to soothe their feelings (Instead of hitting him, why don’t you find a toy to play with on your own until you feel like playing with him again?). In order for parents to be effective in this way they must have a fairly good grasp of emotional intelligence themselves.

As children grow, the specific emotional lessons they are ready for–and in need of–shift. Here, I would like him to give voice to the role of attachment parenting in forming the neural circuitry in which emotional intelligence thrives. At least, he does address the fact that learning begins in infancy. “Lessons in empathy begin in infancy with parents who attune to their baby’s feelings” He expands on this, noting that the difference between an outlook that is optimistic versus pessimistic starts to take shape in the first few years of life, and that parents can do a lot to help children with the basics of emotional intelligence: by learning how to recognize, manage, and harness their feelings; empathizing; and handling the feelings that arise in relationships. He finds that the impact of such parenting is “extraordinarily sweeping.” The advantages are social, cognitive, and biological (these children have lower levels of stress hormones and other indicators of emotional arousal, a pattern that may well augment better physical health).

While the first opportunities to shape emotional intelligence are in the earliest years, opportunities continue throughout the school years. Based on her earliest learning experiences a child learns that people can by trusted to meet her need, or that no one really cares, and efforts to get solace will end in failure. These lessons impact how secure she feels in the world, how effective she feels, and whether she views others as dependable. During the first 3 or 4 years of life, a toddler’s brain grows to about two-thirds of its full size and evolves in complexity at a greater rate than it ever will. Key learnings take place more readily then than later in life–emotional learning foremost among them–and severe stress can impair the brain’s learning centers. The emotional abilities children acquire later in life build on those of the earliest years, and these abilities, as Goleman shows, are the essential foundation for all learning. A child’s success in school is not predicted by the child’s IQ as much as by emotional and social measures, such as: being self assured and interested; knowing what kind of behavior is expected and how to rein in an impulse to misbehave; being able to wait, to follow directions, and to turn to teachers for help; and expressing needs while getting along with other children.

Goleman looks at the ways in which abuse extinguishes empathy and creates violence in even very young children, who learn to respond like miniature versions of their own parents. Clearly, early experiences–of brutality or of love–leave a lasting imprint on the brain. Tracing the impact of trauma on emotional learning, Goleman shows how vivid, terrifying moments become memories “emblazoned in the emotional circuitry, impelling vivid memories of a traumatic moment to continue to intrude on awareness.” These “emotional hair-triggers” sound an alarm when there is the slightest hint that a trauma may be about to reoccur. This hair-trigger phenomenon is the hallmark of emotional trauma of all kinds, including repeated physical abuse in childhood. Can these experiences be healed? Goleman believes so–at least, to a point–for emotional learning is lifelong. Emotional lessons can be reshaped with, for example, medication and/or intensive psychotherapy.

What then of the responses that are givens of our genetic endowment–for example, the reactions of those who are highly volatile or painfully shy? Can temperament, which appears to be a given at birth, be changed by experience? Does our biology fix our emotional destiny, or can even an innately shy child grow into a more confident adult?

Conscious Parenting News AdThis section was especially fascinating to me as Siena is one of those “innately shy” children (not surprisingly, so was I.) I learned of research which shows that timid children come into life with a neural circuitry that makes them more reactive to even mild stress. From birth, their hearts beat faster than that of other infants in response to strange or novel situations. This described my experience of Siena, who would cling to her father or me when approaching new (and even not-so-new) people–though not typically new situations, which she would most commonly engage in with curiosity and enthusiasm. She continues to do this, though to a much, much less extent. Goleman finds that this response appears to underlie what may develop into lifelong timidity–the person treats any new person or situation as though it were a potential threat. Documenting the neurobiochemistry of various temperaments, Goleman concludes that temperament is not destiny. Our genetic heritage endows each of us with a series of emotional setpoints that determine our temperament but the brain circuitry involved is “extraordinarily malleable.”

The emotional lessons of childhood can have a profound impact, either amplifying or muting an innate predisposition. The great plasticity of the brain in childhood means early experiences can have a lasting impact in sculpting neural pathways. How children’s natural temperament is treated by parents impacts how children learn to handle, for example, their timidness. Parents who engineer gradual emboldening experiences for a naturally timid child offer them what may be lifelong correctives to their fearfulness. Parents coach children emotionally by: talking to them about their feelings and how to understand them; not being critical and judgmental; problem solving in emotional predicaments; and coaching them on what to do with difficult emotions, such as offering alternatives to hitting, or withdrawing when sad.

The key skills of emotional intelligence each have critical periods of development extending over several years in childhood. Each period represents a window for helping children instill beneficial emotional habits; if missed it becomes harder to offer corrective lessons later in life. Massive sculpting and pruning of neural circuits in childhood may be a reason why early emotional hardships and trauma have such enduring and pervasive effects in adulthood, and why psychotherapy can take so long to affect some of these patterns. if at all. Even after therapy those patterns tend to remain as underlying propensities, though with an overlay of new insights and relearned responses. This is why Goleman believes that the remedy lies in how we prepare our young for life.

The hecticness, instability, and inconsistency of daily family life are rampant in all segments of society…. What is at stake is nothing less than the next generation. We are depriving millions of children of their competence and moral character. —Urie Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University developmental psychologist who did an international comparison of children’s well-being.

Goleman asserts that the erosion of the countless small nourishing exchanges between parent and child that build emotional competence is commonplace; this not just an American phenomenon, but a global one. He looks at how deficits in emotional or social competencies lay the foundation for massive problems, and how corrective or preventive actions could help. He looks specifically at aggression, eating disorders, drinking and drugs, and depression. He notes that childhood depression is emerging as “a fixture of modern society”–a serious concern, given the discovery that even mild episodes of depression in childhood can augment more severe episodes later in life.

Educators, long disturbed by schoolchildren’s lagging scores in math and reading, are realizing there is a different and more alarming deficiency: emotional illiteracy. And while laudable efforts are being made to raise academic standards, this new and troubling deficiency is not being addressed in the standard school curriculum. As one Brooklyn teacher put it… “We care more about how well schoolchildren can read and write than whether they’ll be alive next week.”

Goleman alerts us to the fact that while educational programs to prevent problems of drug abuse, violence, etc., have proliferated wildly in recent decades, most have proven largely ineffective. For example, many schools offer programs to prevent sexual abuse. Most focus on providing basic information: teaching children how to know the difference between good and bad touching, alerting them to dangers, encouraging them to tell an adult if anything suspicious occurs, etc. These trainings have proven to be ineffective in helping children do something to prevent being victimized. Promise appears in programs that supplement the basic sexual-abuse information with essential emotional and social skills. The children who came through these programs were better able to protect themselves: they were far more likely to demand to be left alone, to yell or fight back, to threaten to tell, and to tell someone when appropriate.

Asserting that wars on drugs, pregnancy–you name it–come too late, after the problem has reached epidemic proportions and taken root in the lives of the young, Goleman advocates the logic of prevention, offering children the life-skills that will increase their chances of avoiding any of these problems. He emphasizes that his focus on emotional and social deficits is not to deny the role of other risk factors (growing up in fragmented, abusive families, or in an impoverished, crime- and drug-ridden neighborhood) but, on surveying the relevant data, he believes there is a role emotional competence plays over and above family and economic forces which may be decisive in determining the extent to which a child is impacted by these hardships. This means that apart from political and economic interventions alleviating the conditions that breed these problems, a great deal can be offered to children to help them grapple better with these hardships. The question then appears: what would an education in the emotions look like?

Goleman’s response is hopeful, engaging, and exciting. In his closing chapter he introduces us to the “emotional literacy courses” that are appearing in schools across the country. The names of these classes range from “social development” to “life skills.” The common thread is the goal of teaching social and emotional intelligence to all children as a part of their regular education. An emerging strategy is to blend lessons on feelings and relationships with other topics. Emotional literacy programs improve children’s academic scores and school performance, as well as help them better fulfill their roles in life as friends, students, sons and daughters, and competent and contented adults. The optimal design of emotional literacy programs is to begin early, be age-appropriate, run throughout the school years, and intertwine with efforts at school, home, and in the community. If such a proposal is to become reality, education and support is needed for teachers and parents.

Of course no program …is an answer to every problem. But given the crisis we find ourselves and our children facing, and given the quantum of hope held out by courses in emotional literacy, we must ask ourselves: Shouldn’t we be teaching these most essential skills for life to every child–now more than ever? And if not now, when?

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