Growing Your Emotional Intelligence and Changing Your “Longitude”

Growing Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a term coined by Charles Darwin in 1872 but popularized in 1995 by author and psychologist Daniel Goleman. Emotional intelligence — the ability to perceive, assess, and manage your own emotions, as well as to deal with those of others — is one of the most valuable skills of the mature individual. When we are adolescents, adult passions appear in our minds unbidden: sexual longings, risk taking, the desire to acquire expensive, beautiful things. But because our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that lets us make social judgments and develop foresight about the possible outcomes of our choices, does not mature until the age of about 25, emotion and passion can overwhelm us when we are young. Many young people lack the emotional intelligence to understand or control their powerful emotions. Instead, they are often on autopilot, led by their hormones and desires.

As we age, too many of us, unfortunately, swing to the opposite extreme. Because of some trauma in life, we shut our emotions down and divorce ourselves from them out of fear. We live in terror of admitting to our emotions. But this is not living. Despite the Western emphasis on the intellect, ancient wisdom shows us that people are complete only when they are ruled by their emotions as well as their intellect — when their passions and their judgment are given equal weight. But many adults, especially as they age, become afraid of their feelings. This is why so many seniors seem shut off, deaf to love, exultation, and joy. They cannot face what they have left behind. We consider this a tragedy since the senior brain possesses the potential to be something quite the opposite.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to assess one’s emotions as they occur, to understand why they are occurring, and to manage their effects in real time. This is a deep level of self-awareness that is accessible through “brain refreshing.” The human brain has an extraordinary ability to reflect on its own functioning, and people with strong emotional intelligence can identify pessimistic feelings as they occur and put them in the proper perspective. Imagine being able to perceive your feelings of irritation when speaking with a friend who taxes your patience, as if you were an outside observer. You still experience the feeling, but you have the presence of mind to know where it is coming from and remind yourself, “He doesn’t really mean to be irritating; it’s best to let that feeling go.” this enables you to set aside such unhelpful emotions and retain your positive outlook toward other people.

Emotional intelligence is a very important life skill, and the later years of life are a great time for its expression. When you are able to face painful memories and let them wash out of your mind, you see the power that you once granted those memories. You discover that they have no power of their own and had only the power that you gave them. You are now in control of what triggers your emotions; they are not in control of you. You could say that you are achieving the highest potential of your emotional brain. Your mind becomes free to pursue its higher purposes — love, compassion, creativity, health, discovery, healing others.

Older people with strong emotional intelligence can and should serve as “emotional mentors” to younger people who are struggling to let go of their own emotional baggage. Clearer perspective on emotion also lends older people the vision to become leaders in the community, where decisions must be made based not only on one’s gut feelings, but on everyone’s demonstrated needs. Best of all, this kind of emotional awareness can renew lifelong relationships by allowing you to let go of meaningless grudges and focus on the positive, affirming traits of the people in your life.

Change Your “Longitude”

Put together “longevity” and “attitude” and you get longitude. This kind of longitude may help you become oriented in life, but we are not talking about the lines on a map that let you know how far east or west of some point you are. We are talking about the territory defined by your mental approach to life. When you refresh your brain and break the hold that negative memories have over your emotions, you change your longitude. Finding your longitude is about locating what is most important to you in life and then observing where you are in relation to those things. In other words, you focus on what you value most, not on past disappointments. By choosing to let go of past pain and view life with a more positive, uplifting, joyful attitude, you will increase your longevity. equally important, you will increase your enjoyment of life. Quantity and quality — for what more could anyone ask?

There are many randomized, controlled studies proving the link between a positive mental state and better health and longer life. One of the most thorough is a study that was published in 2002 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The work, completed at Yale University, tracked hundreds of adults over fifty for 23 years. It found that “those who had a positive attitude towards aging lived roughly seven and a half years longer than participants who were dreading reaching their twilight years. The apparent life-extending benefits of a positive attitude remained even after the researchers accounted for other factors that can influence longevity, such as health, gender, and socio-economic status.”

A positive attitude had an even greater effect on health and long life than maintaining low cholesterol or normal blood pressure. Of course, it may be that people with a positive outlook are more likely to take care of their health and suffer less from stress. But we think there is more to it than that. The mind has an extraordinary ability to affect the body, so why should it be any surprise that a diseased mind, riddled by anger, regret, fear, and resentment, should bring on the same disease in the body? In any case, the effects of improving your “longitude” are clear. As you can see, doing so is a conscious choice anyone can make at any time. It is never too late. Seeing the world with greater hope and kindness improves your health, clears your mind, frees your creative brain, and improves the overall quality of your life.

This article is excerpted from Ilchi Lee and Jessie Jones’ book “In Full Bloom: A Brain Education Guide for Successful Aging.”

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