In an increasingly complex and tech saturated world, where collaboration is often required to solve tough problems and machines are taking over more routine work, emotional intelligence is becoming more important. What should you do if you're worried yours isn't as high as you'd like it to be?
There are plenty of research-backed approaches for boosting your emotional skills, and science assures those in need of a lift in this area that it is possible to improve. But if you're feeling low energy, there's apparently another way to up your EQ -- just wait around a while.
Granted this isn't the speediest approach to becoming more adept at understanding and responding to others' emotions, but according to recent research it's a valid option. A recent study out of the University of California, Berkeley shows that our EQ generally rises steadily throughout our working lives, peaking at the mature age of 60.
Creakier bones but stronger emotional skills
It doesn't take a scientific study to prove that lots of things get worse as we age -- knees get creaky, eyesight worse, memory unreliable -- but according to UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, at least one ability improves with the decades: EQ.
To determine the peak age for EQ, Levenson's team had 144 study participants who ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s watch a series of video clips designed to elicit different emotions, like disgust and sadness. These volunteers were asked to manipulate their emotions in response to the nasty or heartrending clips -- either to remain unmoved or to try to see the upside of whatever they witnessed on screen.
Which age group was best able to reinterpret and re-contextualize the images? You guessed it -- not the more emotionally volatile 20-somethings. In fact, the researchers found that the older the participant, the better he or she tended to be at putting the videos in perspective. Younger and middle-aged participants, meanwhile, were better at simply ignoring their emotions.
While being more affected by sad (or gross) scenes might not sound like a particularly useful trait, Levenson argues the tendency to experience and actively process -- rather than ignore -- emotions offers older adults real advantages.
"Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centers on social relationships and caring for and being cared for by others," he commented. "Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age."
Another name for wisdom?
In some ways these findings are surprising. Many people fear they're stuck with the level of IQ or EQ they have when they're born, and older folks are sometimes saddled with crotchety, cane-waving, "Get off my lawn, you young-uns!" stereotypes.
But viewed through a different lens, the results aren't shocking in the least. What, after all, is another word for the ability to take different perspectives on difficulties and put problems into context? Wisdom is definitely one possible answer. And whatever other ill-informed opinions people might hold about older adults, most of us do realize that wisdom and age tend to go together (though there are ways to speed the process of becoming wiser).
So if you sometimes worry that emotional adroitness doesn't come naturally to you, take some comfort in knowing you'll likely get better at this skill with age. In the meantime, it's probably a good idea for all of us to look at more senior colleagues and acquaintances in light of this research. Science has just underlined what we've long known but sometimes forget -- living teaches you valuable emotional skills that the rest of us would do well to learn from and respect.