Author: Daniel Goleman
The simple premise behind this very influential book is the idea that emotions are as important as intelligence in almost all facets of life, and how we use, or misuse them, determines our successes and failures. Regretting that scientists and the public at large have abandoned the sphere of emotions as ‘a largely unexplored continent’, the book sets out to establish the importance of feelings in the whole spectrum of human experience, ‘from health to lifestyle to work‘. Arguing convincingly that emotional intelligence is more effective than academic acumen in the face of life’s turmoils and opportunities, the book sketches out how we can ‘bring intelligence to our emotions’ and thereby achieve our life goals (pages xiv-xiii, 4 and 36). More significantly, it demonstrated the high cost of ‘emotional illiteracy‘, the pervasive consequences of poorly calibrated emotions, which range from depression and pessimism to aggression and criminality (page 231-243).
The pivotal feature of the book is its evaluation of how emotions determine the richness of our social interactions; it indeed maintains that the quality of our conversations rests on the ‘key social competence‘ of how well participants send and receive emotions. Defining this ‘emotion contagion‘ as a ‘subterranean economy of the psyche‘, the author said it manifests as the unconscious imitation of each others emotions, adding that people who are best able to ‘control the signals‘ they send out have the most satisfying social exchanges (pages 114-117). In a similar way, the books explored the influence of emotions in marriage, highlighting the factors that make such unions successful, such as emotional listening, and those which doom them to failure, such as contemptuous criticism and stonewalling (pages 132-146). Conceiving of the family as the ‘first school for emotional learning‘, the book showed how parents very easily transmit their emotional predispositions to their children, either overtly or as subtexts (pages 189-196). In the workplace on the other hand, the book reviewed the exquisite emotional dynamics of meetings and networking, and the ‘collective emotional intelligence’ that determines the fate of organisations at large (pages 151-163).
As expected, empathy was one of the major emotions the book scrutinised comprehensively. It defined this as the skill in reading feelings, and it discussed the varied nonverbal channels we use to transmit it, for example tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Tracing the origins of empathy to childhood, the author identified the capacity for self-awareness of one’s own emotions as its most important prerequisite. He goes on to show that the most empathetic people are those who are most emotionally adjusted; being ‘more open‘ to their own emotions, they are better able to read other peoples’ feelings (pages 96-97). On the flip side, the author also referred to poorly developed empathy skills, as seen in psychopaths whose emotional detachment limits their ability to empathise, and in child abuse victims whose misattuned empathy makes them hyperalert (pages 102-110). The book covered several other manifestations of emotional dysfunction such as alexithymia, the inability to describe feelings, and dyssemia, the inability to recognise nonverbal communication (pages 65-83, 50-51 and 121).
The book made many practical recommendations on how to nurture emotional intelligence and how to manage emotional crises. Some of the most helpful advice are on how to cultivate self-efficacy, ‘the belief that one has mastery over the events of one’s life’, and how to become proficient in managing our emotions, what the author referred to as ‘the art of soothing ourselves’ (pages 89 and 57). The book also advocated strategies for mitigating anger, such as reframing situations in a more positive light, challenging trigger thoughts, and just going away to cool off (pages 60-63). Other recommendations include guides on ‘handling someone at the peak of rage‘, such as distracting them into ‘an alternative focus‘ (page 124). The author however made the point that these anger management methods are only effective if instituted early, before the anger reaches the stage of ‘cognitive incapacitation‘ when rational thinking becomes impaired.
The impact of emotions in healthcare is a subject the author focused on throughout the book, a reflection of his insightful perspective that ‘in the land of the sick, emotions rule supreme’. He noted that sickness, by making us feel weak and helpless, has the almost unique capacity to burst our illusion of invulnerability (page 164). Discussing how our emotions may give rise to health disorders, the book gave examples such as how hostility, anxiety, and depression may increase the risks of heart disease, cognitive impairment, and viral infections, and how emotional distress facilitates the emergence of diverse diseases such as eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol abuse, and drug dependence (pages 167-176, 247-255 and 202). Disappointed that modern healthcare does not recognise these significant effects of emotions on illness, the author urges healthcare managers to deploy emotional intelligence to address this ‘emotional reality‘ of disease, and it advised healthcare practitioners to focus on ‘how people feel‘, pointing out the ‘added medical value of an empathic physician or nurse, attuned to patients, able to listen and be heard’ (page 165 and 183-185).
To complement its clinical and social content, the book also had a helpful academic dimension as it characterises the brain structures which modulate our emotions. An example is its portrayal of the amygdala as the ‘psychological sentinel‘ which responds swiftly to threatening events, and as ‘the storehouse of emotional memory‘ on which all passions depend (pages 15-17). The frontal lobes, on the other hand, he depicted as ‘the brain’s damper switch‘ which restrains the emotional ‘surges’ of the amygdala (pages 24-25). He discusses how these structures generate the ingredients of emotional intelligence such as self-motivation, impulse-control, mood regulation, handling stress, and taking the perspectives of others (page 34, 43, 78-83 and 259). The author drew on the works of a wide range of experts to support all his assertions, from Joseph LeDoux, Antonio Damasio, Albert Bandura, and Walter Mischel, to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Jerome Kagan, John Gottman, and Aaron Beck (page 15, 28, 90, 215, 134 and 137).
This is a sweeping and comprehensive assessment of everything to do with the emotions. With a slightly off-putting vague start, the book’s content builds in focus and relevance as it outlines the science behind emotions, and translates this into easily understood concepts. The book demonstrates the crucial importance of the gamut of emotions, with an emphasis on how poorly regulated feelings impact on relationships and health. More practically, the book makes simple and easily adapted suggestions to improve emotional intelligence, with potential benefits for individuals and the wider society. There are some obvious shortcomings, such as the limited reference to autism, a key disorder of emotion, and the personal anecdotes and press clippings which did not make the contents of the book any more accessible. These however do not diminish the importance of this book which teaches key lessons in this most important of subjects.
The book’s remit is wide, and the author reviewed each topic exhaustively, defining concepts and making practical recommendations. The author eloquently demonstrates the widespread influence of emotions, particularly highlighting the often long-lasting consequences these have on health. The book also points out the role emotions play in relationships and in institutions, spheres which are important to medicine. The author’s advocacy for more empathy in healthcare practitioners is particularly cogent. The book has excellently covered a topic that is fundamental to healthcare and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Bloomsbury, London, 1995
Number of chapters: 16
Number of pages: 339
Star rating: 5