Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to our ability to recognize and manage our feelings, to empathize, and to interact skillfully. People with strengths in EI connect to their own experience and have a genuine interest in helping others. But does emotional intelligence make you wise?
"Wisdom" seems an amorphous trait, difficult to define, let alone study. Yet the ability to cultivate wisdom may be vital to the future of society and our planet as well as for a life well lived.
Dr. Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuropsychologist, defined "wisdom" years ago, and her definition has informed research and thinking on the topic since. She described wisdom as "the ability to grasp human nature, which is paradoxical, contradictory, and subject to continual change." Dr. Clayton also identified three interconnected abilities that comprise wisdom: thinking, reflecting, and compassion. Our thoughts and reflections can lead to new insights and perspectives, which might lead to a compassionate stance -- and actually helping those in need.
Grasping Human Nature
Like wisdom, emotional intelligence helps us "grasp human nature" -- knowing ourselves, how others feel and see the world, and understanding the complexity of relationships. These abilities all differ from IQ, which measures logical thought and the ability to analyze.
To understand human nature in general it helps enormously to first understand ourselves, which takes self-awareness. With emotional self-awareness, we recognize our feelings and how they impact us, which helps us, for example, speak from the heart in a way that resonates with other people. Self-awareness also underlies effective emotional mastery, as well as empathy -- we can only understand others' emotions if we understand our own.
Laura Carstensen at Stanford University has found that as people age, they generally become "more emotionally balanced and better able to solve highly emotional problems." This is due, in part, to an increased awareness of mortality and an appreciation for the beauty in life. In Carstensen's study, older people were also more likely to report a mixture of positive and negative emotions, such as happiness tinged with sadness, which helped them recover more quickly from emotional extremes. (Of course, wisdom is not limited to the aged, nor does aging guarantee wisdom.)
In addition to self-awareness and emotional self-control, empathy is vital to our ability to forge meaningful relationships and grasp human nature. With empathy, we can appreciate the diversity of perspectives, be more tolerant, and have more harmonious interactions.
Emotional intelligence and wisdom can coalesce in our relationships. People with strengths in the EI relationship management competencies take the time to be present with others and cultivate mutual respect in their relationships. They have a genuine interest in helping people, especially those who could benefit from their experience. And they excel at managing conflict by finding common ground. Bonus: such healthy relationships correlate with greater life satisfaction and longevity.
Caring and Connection
Empathy also allows more "generativity," giving back to others and a concern for their wellbeing -- particularly among younger generations. The term was used by the psychologist Erik H. Erikson, who saw it as an important sign of wisdom. Generativity lets us care deeply for those beyond our circles of family and friends. We can find commonality even with people whose lives differ greatly from our own, and care about them.
Generativity extends beyond empathy, to compassion and selfless giving. This includes giving back -- through creative, emotional, or financial means -- without expecting anything in return. People with this quality prioritize the greater good over their self-interests. And they seek opportunities to give back beyond the limits of their lifetime.
As the Dalai Lama proposed, when you make a major decision ask yourself:
Who benefits? Just me, or a group?
Just my group, or everyone? And only the present, or into the future?
Bottom line: Emotional intelligence is an essential part of wisdom. EI competencies enable us to recover from life's inevitable setbacks, to hear and understand others, and to cultivate meaningful relationships. Yet wisdom also extends beyond EI, to the compassion and selflessness of generativity. When we can expand our circles of caring beyond ourselves, our cohort, and our lifetime, we stand to improve our world and gain wisdom in the process.