When considering an example of intelligence, most people would name someone known for their genius, like Albert Einstein. However, intelligence extends beyond an accomplished brain. There are different types of intelligence one can have — and that includes the ability to perceive and interpret emotions.
Identifying distinctive types of intelligence allows us to discover that emotional intelligence is often a blindspot. For example, we could have a friend who is very clever, but has messy relationships; or know someone who has made millions of dollars, but remains unhappy. These people are intelligent in other skill sets, but they lack emotional intelligence.
In this animation for the School of Life, philosopher Alain de Botton explains, “Emotional intelligence is the quality that enables us to confront with patience, insight, and imagination the many problems that we face in our affective relationship with ourselves and with other people.”
Emotional intelligence in action
Emotional intelligence sets the tone for how we react both to other people’s emotions and our own, as well as how we handle life’s ups and downs.
Those with high emotional intelligence are unlikely to trust their first impulses.
de Botton notes that in social life “we can feel the presence of emotional intelligence in a sensitivity to the moods of others, and in a readiness to grasp the surprising things that may be going on for other people beneath the surface.”
For example, a person who understands that their sister’s angry outburst is actually a disguised plea for help is emotionally intelligent.
When it comes to understanding ourselves, de Botton explains emotional intelligence “shows up in a skepticism around our emotions.”
Those with high emotional intelligence are unlikely to trust their first impulses. This is also what determines how people react to failure — those with higher emotional intelligence are more likely to face setbacks with resilience, rather than give up.
How can we gain emotional intelligence?
In order to gain greater intelligence, it is important to master emotional education.
Because we haven’t taken emotional education seriously, our species “has grown ever-more technically adept, while retaining the level of wisdom of our earliest days,” says de Botton. Without practicing emotional education, we will grow into “technologically-armed menaces to ourselves.”
If you’re someone whose emotional intelligence doesn’t come naturally to, don’t despair. de Botton says, “emotional intelligence isn’t an inborn talent. It’s the result of education, specifically education in how to interpret ourselves, where our emotions arise from, how our childhoods influence us and in how we might best navigate our fear and our wishes.”
Emotional intelligence isn’t an inborn talent. It’s the result of education, specifically education in how to interpret ourselves, where our emotions arise from, how our childhoods influence us and in how we might best navigate our fear and our wishes.
An emotional education extends beyond formal education, and should be practiced long after the age we typically finish school. The good news is, it’s likely you are already consuming what you need to gain emotional intelligence: culture.
“The central vehicle for the transfer of emotional intelligence is culture, from its highest to its most popular level,” de Botton explains. “Culture is the field that can ritualize and consistently promote the absorption of wisdom.”
To learn more about emotional intelligence, follow this practical framework to transform emotional struggle into inner wisdom.