Blog Post

Emotional intelligence can increase with age

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By Michael Hanisco

Despite popular notions of seniors being stubborn or set in their ways, evidence suggests that we may actually gain in skills known as “emotional intelligence” as we age. October was designated as Emotional Intelligence Awareness Month by the nonprofit Emotional Intelligence Institute to improve emotional literacy, communication and mindfulness.

The concept of emotional intelligence has been a hot topic in the field of psychology over the past few decades. Author Daniel Goleman popularized the term in a 1995 book titled “Emotional Intelligence.” Goleman’s definition of emotional intelligence is “the capability of people to recognize emotions, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage their emotions to adapt to different environments.”

An emotionally intelligent person is better able to empathize with others, and to see and feel things from a perspective different from their own. Emotionally intelligent people may be better communicators, friends and confidants. For seniors looking to build new social structures or improve existing ones, emotional intelligence may play a crucial role.

The research

Even as the concept of emotional intelligence continues to be debated, a number of high-profile studies have been released in recent years exploring the topic. A few of these studies examined the role of emotional intelligence in mental health, well-being and job performance, while others explored the role that age plays in developing or enhancing one’s emotional intelligence.

Multiple studies have shown that people with high emotional intelligence have better mental health, job performance and leadership skills. While higher emotional intelligence is correlated with these traits, debate remains over whether emotional intelligence is the root cause of them.

A number of studies have suggested that older people may have a higher level of emotional intelligence compared to their younger counterparts. One such study conducted in 2010 by psychologist Robert Levenson at the University of California, Berkley, and published in the journal Psychology and Aging, looked at how healthy adults in their 20s, 40s and 60s reacted to film clips depicting scenes categorized as neutral, sad or disgusting. Participants were asked to use three different coping mechanisms as researchers monitored things like blood pressure, heart rates, perspiration and breathing patterns.

While younger participants were better at simply tuning out the unpleasant film clips, older participants were the best of any age group at reinterpreting negative scenes to focus on their positive aspects, a coping mechanism that is referred to as “positive reappraisal” and correlated with higher emotional intelligence. According to Levenson, this method relies heavily on life experience and lessons, learned which may account for the better scores among older participants.

Because of their success in handling these situations, Levenson and his team concluded, “Older adults may be better served by staying socially engaged and using positive reappraisal to deal with stressful, challenging situations rather than disconnecting from situations that offer opportunities to enhance quality of life.”

Michelle Spencer, Psy.D., a psychologist in the Older Adult Protective Services department at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, echoed the call for seniors to stay engaged.

“The key [to personal growth] is interacting with other people,” Spencer said. For seniors with shrinking social circles, senior community centers may provide opportunities for those interactions. Many centers offer classes, support groups and special events that can increase levels of engagement and improve seniors’ quality of life.

Benefits of age

Spencer points to two of the three commonly cited pillars of emotional intelligence when considering why older people may be more adept at recognizing and adapting their emotions: self-management and self-direction. Evidence suggests that older people may be more self-aware and more sure of their life direction than younger people, laying a stronger foundation for emotional intelligence.

“Age gives us experience,” Spencer said. “And experience gives us feedback. We develop a better sense of who we are as we get older.”

As we age, there are more opportunities to share what we have learned, according to Spencer. During their older years, people often begin to think about their contributions to the next generation. They may be in a position to teach or guide the younger people in their lives, creating more opportunities to build and practice emotional intelligence.

Improving emotional intelligence

For those who are looking to improve their emotional intelligence, Spencer suggests practicing introspection. Some tips:

  • Keep a journal of your feelings
  • Meditate
  • Attempt to see things from another’s perspective
  • Pause before you act or react

We also have the ability to learn from others, she said. Think about everyday heroes and consider what personality traits you would like to emulate. In more tangible terms, she suggests looking for opportunities to practice empathy in daily life and thinking about how you might work to repair or improve personal relationships. The most important factor is to stay connected to others, she said, no matter your age.

(Image: istock)