Being able to identify, understand, express, manage and use our emotions helps us in so many facets of our lives. According to a recent UCL study, emotional intelligence (EI) can even improve your health.
Joy, enthusiasm, pride, shame, jealousy, stress, irritation, anger, fear, depression—positive or negative, our emotions are part of our humanity. Everyone has them. However, ‘we don’t all have the same degree of emotional intelligence, that is, the capacity to identify, understand, express, control and use our emotions’, explains Moïra Mikolajczak, a researcher at the UCL Psychological Sciences Research Institute.
Emotional intelligence types
There are five main types of EI:
- Identifying emotions: While it’s relatively easy to recognise basic emotions such as anger and sadness, some people find it difficult to identify more complex emotions such as shame, guilt, etc.
- Understanding emotions: Many people tend to confound an emotion’s cause with its trigger. For example, say you’ve had a bad week. You’re tired, your boss yelled at you, your car broke down, etc. Then on Friday night your spouse makes a critical comment about the meal you prepared. And you get angry. The comment triggers your anger, but your bad week is what causes it.
- Expressing emotions involves choosing the right moment, the right person, and the right tone.
- Controlling emotions: We don’t all manage our emotions in the same way. Under stress, for example, one person will keep her cool whereas another will get angry or break down in tears.
Use emotions: This means doing something concrete with our emotions in order improve our lives. For example, if we’re chronically stressed, we can decide to go on holiday or work less.
Links between health and emotional intelligence
Several studies have demonstrated that people with high EI are generally happier. They’re at lower risk of depression, burnout and anxiety, happier in their relationships (partner, friends, family, colleagues, etc.) and often more effective at work.
We have long suspected that EI also has an influence on physical health. To find out how much influence, Dr Mikolajczak, in partnership with KU Leuven and the Belgian health insurance fund Mutualités chrétiennes, conducted a study involving 10,000 Belgians. The results are astonishing. They reveal that over one year, compared to a low-EI person, a high-EI person:
- takes 128 fewer doses of medicine;
- costs its health insurance fund on average €361 less;
- spends a half-day less in hospital.
How can EI have this much influence on needing medical care? ‘The links are many’, replies Dr Mikolajczak. ‘Persons with less developed EI experience negative emotions more often and more intensely. This has harmful consequences for health, physiological as much behavioural.’ Indeed, negative emotions inhibit sleep quality and fuel behaviours such as consuming tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Chronic negative emotions induce physiological reactions that are also detrimental to health. Just think of the many illnesses provoked by chronic stress.
A genuine social issue
The good news is that emotional intelligence can be improved via psychotherapy and training. ‘We organise an 18-hour training that can increase EI by 10% on average’, explains Dr Mikolajczak. ‘Our study showed that each percentile of improvement corresponds to a 1% decrease in health care spending.’
In addition to the substantial social security savings this would entail, increasing people’s EI, even teaching it in schools, would benefit society considerably. ‘Being able to identify one’s emotions, understand and adequately express them, manage and put them to good use can really solve problems, both individual and collective. At a time when we’re asking how best to replace religion courses, turning to EI learning is all the more interesting because it would place all children on an equal footing in terms of emotional intelligence.’ Which, quite likely, would improve our lives together.
Moïra Mikolajczak’s research on emotional intelligence are or have been funded by the FNRS, UCL FSR and the Walloon Region.
A Glance at Moïra Mikolajczak's bio