EQ 2020-10-11T21:55:01+00:00

Scientific lessons to improve your emotional intelligence

learn actionable and science backed techniques that help you manage and improve your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is at its core the ability to manage your emotional reactions and to understand other people’s reactions towards positive and negative experiences.

The world is a complex and dynamic place, where at one time you may experience joy and success, and at another, hardship and failure. In order to navigate through this mixed bag of experiences unscathed we need to be able to deal with the good as well as the bad. It is therefore important to learn how to make the most out of the good experiences, handle the negative ones, and interact productively with other people dealing with their own emotional reactions. Luckily, your emotional intelligence is not set in stone–it is largely a skill, and with practice you can significantly improve your life-satisfaction, and overall well being.

This module distills the most reliable advances on emotion regulation research and positive psychology into actionable mini-lessons designed to help you develop your emotional intelligence skills. The lessons have been set up to be easy to follow and implement in your daily life. They include a range of tools and tactics to help you better manage yourself, understand others, and reach your goals.

In this document you’ll learn to be more receptive to positive experiences, exert control over your emotional expression, and learn techniques that can help you deal with stressful experiences.

As always, we have gone through hundreds of empirical papers from psychology, neuroscience, developmental science, cognitive science, and clinical research. We have then summarized and explained it in a way that is easy to understand and even easier to follow. You will be given quick tactics that you can use in the moment, as well as micro-habits that you can implement throughout your day to effectively improve your emotion-regulation skills over time.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence includes two main parts: 

  1. Emotion “regulation” – which refers to the process by which we influence the expression, experience, and duration of our own emotions in order to reach a desired goal.

  2. Better understanding other people’s emotions.

Better emotional intelligence leads to all sorts of improved outcomes, including higher well-being, less stress, fewer depressive symptoms, and more self-esteem.

Emotion regulation components that will be developed in this module include: 

  1. Emotional awareness. This is perhaps the most important component of effective emotion regulation, as we first need to be aware of the fact that we are experiencing an emotion, before we can attempt to regulate it. It also covers better interpreting other people’s emotions.
  2. Situational control. A powerful tool in emotional intelligence is the ability to assert control over a situation. We can do this by finding a part of the situation that we can exert an influence on, or otherwise modify in order to help us achieve our desired results.
  3. Efficient attention deployment. A lot happens around us all the time. If we don’t learn to focus on the positive aspects of our lives, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the negative. We’ll therefore discuss tips and tricks to be more receptive of positive experiences and help you develop optimism towards the future.
  4. Reappraisal. This might be the most valuable skill that you will ever learn (in regard to your well-being), and it consists of the ability to turn a negative experience into something positive (or neutral).

Expression modulation. By documenting our emotional expression we can learn a lot about what makes us feel certain emotions, and how we convey these emotions. Once we know how we act, we can influence our expression to better fit our desired goals.

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Emotion regulation and the brain

From a neuropsychological perspective, emotions are actually experiences that are associated with activation of certain regions of the brain. When it comes to emotional intelligence and emotion regulation, the two regions most involved are the limbic region and the neocortex region.

The limbic region: quickly “feeling” the emotion. The limbic region of the brain can be seen as the emotional processor of the brain. Three of its components are the insula, the hippocampus, and the amygdala.

The insula is the “feeling center” of the body that integrates our emotional, sensory, cognitive, and motor functions (6,7,8). It receives and interprets bodily sensations such as pain, gut feelings, nausea, and combines these with our subjective experiences like what we see happening around us. It has specific areas for moderating and gauging positive and negative experiences.

The hippocampus, named after its vaguely sea-horse looking shape, helps with the retrieving and encoding of memories (1,2). When we experience a situation, we draw from our memory storage to see if we have already had an emotional experience or expectation at the moment. After each situation, it helps store (or update) contextual information, such as the smell of fire or the sound of an alarm, so that we have a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.

The amygdala can be seen as the alarm bell of the brain. This almond shaped region is connected to the hippocampus, and plays an important role in the processing of threats. When it perceives a threat–whether it is an external threat (being attacked by a dog) or an internal threat (remembering an impending deadline)–it sends the brain into a state of alert. Due to its strong connection to the hippocampus, it helps store the emotional experience within your memory (1). This emotional experience is very resilient, as can be seen with childhood trauma’s where the memory has faded but the fear still remains (e.g. fear for dogs).

The neocortex: dealing with the emotions. In order to regulate our emotions we need our newer “rational” part of the brain, the neocortex, to intervene with our more primal limbic area. The way this works is through the interplay between the limbic area, the Prefrontal Cortex, and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

The Prefrontal cortex (PFC) can be seen as the CEO of the brain. It is prominent in making plans, organizing actions, monitoring results, changing plans, and settling conflicts between different goals (12). In terms of emotional regulation, the PFC helps foresee the outcomes of our emotions. It can evaluate which rewards (or penalties) are linked towards certain actions.

In order to regulate our emotions, the CEO needs to be able to exert influence over the “primal” limbic brain. It can do this is by sending orders through the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). The ACC sits in the center of the brain and serves as the communicator between the PFC and the limbic system. It serves as the eyes and ears of the CEO, as it is constantly checking whether there is a conflict between different objects of attention. When it finds competing objects (e.g. should I check the text-message I just received or keep my eyes on the road? or should I notice the fruit in this tree or the snake that is slithering towards me?) it relays this to the CEO in order to determine the best course of action (3,9).

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Myth debunking


You must “always be positive”

To start off, and maybe most importantly, positive psychology is not a philosophy to “just think positively!”

Positive psychology acknowledges the importance of “negative” emotions, as they can help us identify problems, make changes, and improve our situation.

You are unique and and skill development may take some practice. Regarding the interventions, it is important to know that there are indeed individual differences in the effectiveness of the interventions. What this means is that what works for one person, might not work as well for another.

A prime reason for this lies in the level of a person’s base level of emotional intelligence and openness to growth. More specifically, for a person to attempt to regulate their emotions, they must:

  1. Be aware that they are experiencing an emotion, and
  2. Believe that regulation will be effective (2). 

Research has shown that people who view their emotions as fixed (versus malleable) had less confidence in their ability to regulate their emotions and, as a result, poorer emotional outcomes (1).

Additionally, there is not a single “magic fix” that will forever improve your emotional intelligence in all circumstances. Instead, there is a set of skills, many of which can help you immediately but almost all of which you can improve over time. 

The evidence

  1. Tamir, M., Chiu, C., & Gross, J. J. (2007).
    Business or pleasure? Utilitarian versus hedonic considerations in emotion regulation. Emotion, 7, 546–554. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.7.3.546

  2. Webb, T. L., Schweiger Gallo, I., Miles, E., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2012).
    Effective regulation of affect: An action control perspective on emotion regulation.
    European review of social psychology, 23(1), 143-186.

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