Emotional Wellness, Emotional Intelligence, and Emotionally Intelligent Democracy

Cognitive abilities are known to predict success in life. As measured by Intelligence Quotient (IQ), strong analytical skills improve our chances to excel in school, do well at work, and achieve recognition in society. According to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, this connection is so strong that the entire social structure can be explained by differences in IQ levels found in the economic classes and social strata comprising our society. And since cognitive abilities are largely inherited and immune to change, the argument goes, social inequality is inevitable, for it merely reflects the cognitive inequality revealed by IQ scores.

This argument has been challenged by critics who point out that IQ-based aptitude is not the only form of intelligence that counts – other abilities play a significant and independent role in predicting success in life. Why else would people with an IQ of 160 work for people with an IQ of 100, asks Howard Gardner, author of the theory of multiple intelligences? In addition to logical-mathematical intelligence captured by IQ tests, Gardner insists, there are several other intelligences, including linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, intra-personal intelligence, and inter-personal intelligence. Different-type intelligences appear to be localized in separate parts of the brain, and they may continue to operate adequately even when portions of the brain responsible for other aptitudes are damaged.

Since Gardner proposed his list in 1982, scholars and business leaders have given close attention to the last two intelligences. Reuven Bar-On calls the phenomenon under study Emotional Quotient (EQ), Peter Salovey and Jack Mayer define it as Emotional Intelligence (EI), and Daniel Goleman and his associates refer to it as Emotional Intelligence Competencies (EIC). While all these authors associate Emotional Intelligence with the ability to understand and manage emotions in oneself and others, they disagree on what exactly the concept means and how it should be measured.

Emotional intelligence can be defined as (a) aptitude, (b) competence, or (c) wellness. Those who see EI as a generalized ability to label and analyze emotions, investigate this form of intelligence through a series of objective tests. An example of this approach is the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) featuring pictures, music tunes, and narrative stories that a person is asked to analyze, with the results interpreted as a demonstrated aptitude for handling emotions.

Another approach focuses on EI as a competence or practical skill that reveals not just an aptitude (which might remain undeveloped or be misapplied), but a demonstrated ability to handle emotions intelligently in real life. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis work from this perspective. Their Multifactor Emotional Intelligence Scale (MEIS) gauges a person’s EI level through the so-called 360 degree assessment technique that calls on a person to judge one’s ability to understand and manage emotions and then invites his or her supervisors, subordinates and colleagues/friends to evaluate this person’s skills as well. The individual is assessed on 20 competencies, which include the ability to recognize feelings, judge one’s strengths and weaknesses, trust one’s ability to succeed, manage disruptive impulses, speak one’s mind, act on convictions, seize opportunity, grasp other people’s moods and agendas, understand one’s place in the hierarchy, boost other people’s performances, handle difficult people with grace, inspire a group and lead team efforts.

A third approach treats EI as emotional wellness that manifests itself in the more or less balanced way we integrate our abilities to cope effectively with life’s problems. Reuven Bar-On takes this path, insisting that EQ abilities and skills are rooted in the individual’s personality and reflect relatively stable patterns of affective life. The Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i) is designed to capture distinct emotional profiles. Using a self-assessment method, EQ-i invites the respondent to rate one’s ability to maintain a relationship, sustain intimacy, show affection, control a disruptive impulse, work in a group, brave challenges, manage stress, enjoy company, and have an optimistic outlook on life.

Debates among scholars studying emotional intelligence can be heated at times, as each side strives to prove that its approach holds the best promise in light of research data and practical results. Regardless of methodology, all those working in this field agree that EI is a real phenomenon, that cognitive skills alone do not explain success and failure in life. To be sure, IQ scores tell us something important about a person’s ability to secure a degree in rocket science or survive medical board exams. Once you enter a profession, however, cognitive scores loose much of their power to predict how well you will do on the job over the long run. Studies conducted by private companies and scholarly institutions suggest that a successful workplace is emotionally intelligent, that in addition to expert knowledge, star performers demonstrate remarkable people skills, that employees scoring high on EI tests are the ones who are likely to show superior results and find themselves on the fast track to the top. The relative contribution that IQ and EI make to professional success is still in dispute, but the consensus is growing that each contributes separately to one’s job performance and company’s success.

Emotional Intelligence plays an even greater role outside work. Success in marital life, achievement in a community, an overall sense of wellbeing are inseparable from the ability to identify, label, analyze, control, and creatively deploy our emotional resources. An intellect unleavened by noble affect is as likely to go astray in our world of immense complexity as emotions bereft of reason and unenlightened by analytical intelligence.

So, what kind of person embodies the ideal of emotional intelligence? It is someone who recognizes how our moods affect other people, registers the conflicting sentiments we experience in any given situation, possesses a vocabulary sophisticated enough to articulate complex feelings, and communicates ambivalent attitudes in a manner that acknowledges their critical edge while protecting others from their destructive impact.

Emotional intelligence is important not only for personal growth and wellbeing. It is also central to building an emotionally intelligent democracy. Free speech, multi-party politics, constitutional checks and balances are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a viable democracy. For democracy is also an emotion or "experience," as John Dewey used to say. It thrives in the emotional culture which promotes trust, tolerance, prudence, compassion, humor, and it wilts when overexposed to suspicion, hatred, vanity, cruelty, and sarcasm. No quantum of hatred we impart to the world disappears without a trace, nor does the quantum of loving kindness. Conserved like any other form of energy, violent outbursts can aggregate until they result in the in Sept. 11 explosion. Emotional emergy can also feed an affective synergy that facilitates political breakthroughs like the ones we saw in the Civil Rights era.

Emotional sanity is as central to democracy as discursive political rationality. Mistaken are those who pin their hopes on correct political "signals" and dismiss emotional littering as mere "noise." The emotional medium is very much the message when it comes to politics. While emotions that confer dignity on the other are democracy's lifeblood, violent emotions that hold others in contempt subvert its sacred thrust. Democracy that is not emotionally intelligent is a sordid affair. The emotional illiteracy we find here spurs emotional littering, emotional littering breeds emotional violence, and emotional violence lurks behind every Columbine High massacre. This is why we need to guard public discourse against political as well as emotional distortions.