When I started to consider what inner qualities would be most essential in facing a future with climate change, again and again I returned to the importance of emotional health. Facing the facts of climate change is an emotionally challenging process. Anxiety and fear for one’s safety and future, grief for the many losses we already see and will continue to see all around us, anger and frustration at the causes of this issue, and shame about the ways we ourselves still contribute to the problem – all of these feelings are normal companions to seriously engaging with the topic of climate change. It’s not hard to understand why many still chose to turn away from the issue.
However, the time will come when that choice is no longer possible, when the impacts are too severe for any type of avoidance or denial. We will all be forced to confront the reality of climate change and those best suited to do so while maintaining mental health will be those who have learned to intelligently engage with their emotions. The ability to recognize what one is feeling and value emotions without being consumed will be essential. So, too, will be the ability to honor the emotions of others. For this reason, emotional intelligence remains at the top of my list of “qualities for future” – and it would do a lot of good in the present, as well.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
“Emotional intelligence” was first introduced by Professors of Psychology Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in 1990. Salovey and Mayer were later joined by Dr. David Caruso in their studies on the topic and the three published the following definition of the term:
Emotional Intelligence includes the ability to engage in sophisticated information processing about one’s own and others’ emotions and the ability to use this information as a guide to thinking and behavior. That is, individuals high in emotional intelligence pay attention to, use, understand, and manage emotions, and these skills serve adaptive functions that potentially beneﬁt themselves and others.(Mayer, J.D., Salovey, P. and Caruso, D. (2008). Emotional Intelligence: New Ability or Eclectic Traits? American Psychologist, Vol. 63, No. 6, pages 503 – 517. Retrieved here.)
What does this mean? Emotional intelligence is the interplay between cognition and emotion. Journalist Daniel Goleman popularized the term in his 1996 bestseller Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. With a title like that, it’s not surprising that the book made quite a splash. Many studies have been conducted with the goal of determining just how important EI might be.
The answer, not surprisingly, is: very. EI determines our ability to feel empathy, communicate, read and navigate social situations and motivate ourselves. EI is a significant determinant in areas like career success, mental health and the health of our relationships with others. A growing body of research demonstrates EI’s important role in equipping individuals to better work with teams, deal with change and manage stress. EI’s significant role in stress management and reduction means that EI also is directly correlated with personal resilience.
Unpacking EI in terms of climate change
If you think about it, the importance of EI, its direct correlation with resilience in the face of stress and change and its relationship with self-motivation all make quite a lot of sense. When we are able to name, understand and talk about our emotions, they have less of a grip on us. We can step outside of the emotional experience, analyze it and make decisions about how we are going to move through those emotions. We can both honor the validity of our emotional experience while also seeing a broader picture. And we can support others in doing the same.
Facing a future with climate change will certainly involve a tremendous amount of stress as we navigate rapid and unprecedented change. The capacity to honor valid and intense emotional responses while also moving beyond those emotions will play a critical role in our ability to exist in such a world without suffering incredible depression and burnout and will be essential if we are to engage with the issue and try to make a positive difference in such a world.
EI will also play a critical role as we navigate challenges such as extreme weather events, massive migration, food and water scarcity and the unequal distribution of these impacts. In short, some will be hit much harder than others. Empathy and the ability to work collaboratively will be essential if widespread conflict is to be avoided.
Taking this a step further, at no point in the future of the world has it been more important that we connect with and honor the rest of the natural world and other humans. We must stop meeting human wants and needs at the expense of other beings. And we must stop prioritizing individual desires and wealth accumulation over the rights of other humans. To shift towards a way of life grounded in respect for all other living beings, we must first feel for those beings. We must recognize the suffering of others, whether human or not, and channel our emotional response into realizing a way of living that does not deplete the lives of others. In this work, emotional intelligence plays a critical role.
Teaching and learning EI – the role of parents and schools
If emotional intelligence is a critical tool in navigating a world with climate change, how can we cultivate more of it, not only in young people but also in ourselves?
Here, there are several pieces of good news. First, unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be learned and grow. The essential components of EI – the ability to perceive emotions in oneself and others accurately; the ability to use emotions to facilitate thinking; the ability to understand emotions, emotional language, and the signals conveyed by emotions; and the ability to manage emotions so as to attain specific goals – can all be learned and strengthened.
Second, as the link between emotional intelligence and success in the workplace and in life generally is demonstrated time and again in research, programs are being developed with the goal of teaching emotional intelligence in the school setting. For example, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has developed the RULER program that can be applied at all levels of public or private education to build emotional intelligence in students, teachers and parents. RULER is an acronym that stands for: Recognizing emotions in self and others, Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, Labeling emotions accurately, Expressing emotions appropriately and Regulating emotions effectively.
What can we do to help ensure that the young people we love and care for have the opportunity to develop their emotional intelligence?
First, we can start at home. If we do not handle our emotions in a healthy way, we cannot hope to help our children do so. Again, emotional intelligence can be learned and increased at any age. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has great resources on the topic of emotions. Additionally, developing a mindfulness practice is a powerful tool in building emotional intelligence. This piece from the New York Times is one of my favorite explorations of the importance of mindfulness for parents and children, how mindfulness in parents impacts children, and how to build mindfulness in both yourself as a caregiver and with your child in different developmental stages, ideas like mindfully eating a snack together, or how to increase mindfulness on a walk, or building mindfulness through storytelling.
Overall take-home on mindfulness as a parent: get present to your life, both generally and with your children specifically. Simplify and be where you are when you are there. Build presence with your children as often as possible; rather than thinking about work or dinner as you are playing, just play.
Second, we can spend more time talking about emotions with the young people in our lives. There can be a tendency to shy away from such topics when interacting with youth, particularly the very young. It can be easy to assume that we are protecting young children by steering away from more challenging aspects of the world and the accompanying emotional responses. And yet, children are reacting to and processing the world through their emotions from a very young age. Learning to name and understand those emotional responses has significant and long-term benefits. Taking the time to talk about emotions – our own, those of our children and those we witness in others – is time very well spent.
Finally, we can advocate for the integration of programs such as RULER in our childrens’ schools. If we are teachers, we can explore implementing such programs. Backed by the scientifically demonstrated link between emotional intelligence and success in life, we can argue that such programs are not just important, they form a critical piece of preparing young people for the world.