Emotional intelligence is a term that was popularised by science journalist Daniel Goleman, to describe one’s ability to recognise and control their own emotions.
There’s been a lot of debate over the years as to what’s more important, IQ or EQ, and according to Goleman’s research, EQ can actually be more important than IQ, in determining how successful someone will be in later life.
This theory is supported by Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Test”. In the 1960’s, Mischel carried out an experiment where they gave children aged between 5 and 8 one marshmallow and told them that they can either have that one now, or wait twenty minutes and have two. Of course, for young children who’s brains are still developing and are prone to bouts of impulsiveness, this task seemed like it would be impossible. However, against all odds, some were able to control their impulses and delay their gratification until the second marshmallow arrived.
These children were then monitored throughout their life. They were found to have scored better in their SAT’s, had less problems with things like obesity, drugs and infidelity and generally speaking, were much happier and healthier compared to those who couldn’t control their impulses and ate the first marshmallow straight away.
Naturally, Mischel concluded that one’s ability to regulate emotions can play a huge factor in determining how successful they are as an adult. But what are some ways we can help to train this in young people?
Hot vs cool thinking
Hot thinking is emotional, reflexive and impulsive. Cool thinking is cognitive, complex and reflective. In the hot system the stimulus controls us; in the cool system we control the stimulus. However, in the case of the marshmallow test, rather than thinking about the salacious properties of the marshmallow, it being yummy, chewy, or tasty, think of the more abstract qualities it has. The fact that it’s round. It’s white. It looks like a cloud. This interrupts certain parts of the brain, namely the limbic system, from getting fired up and causing us to make impulsive decisions in the heat of the moment.
Help them to understand how their brain works
Show them a drawing of what it looks like and explain all the various parts and what they are responsible for e.g. the amygdala, which is responsible for producing adrenaline and cortisol in response to danger. Teach them that these responses are completely natural and that we all have them. If they’re aware of how the brain works, next time they’re in a stressful situation, rather than blowing up, they’ll think “oh, this is just my amygdala responding to fear”. That will shift them out of the limbic brain and into the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain. Subsequently it will enable them to make better decisions in the moment.
Try getting them to do 5 minutes of box breathing
Used in the military to help calm nerves before going into battle. Have them inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale through the mouth for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat this for 5 minutes, maintaining awareness on the breath as it enters the nostrils and exits the mouth. If their mind begins to wander, simply have them anchor their awareness back to the breath. Them ask them to continue to count quietly to themselves. Often, when someone is in an anxious or aroused state, their breath can become shallow. By consciously focusing on the breath in this way they can increase the oxygen going to the brain. This has a calming effect on the body.
Learning to control our emotions can be hugely beneficial, especially for students sitting exams. If you would like to know more, I highly recommend Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence”.