Life is a Highway: Why High Emotional Intelligence is the Roadmap to Wellness
If you are like me and are a huge fan of music, you will undoubtedly be familiar with Canadian-born rock star Tom Cochrane’s song Life is a Highway, made popular back in the early 1990s.
Recognized as a “seize-the-day anthem” (Songfacts, 2021), the song was written by Cochrane after he had gone to West Africa, where he was exposed to World Vision’s famine relief organization. Cochrane stated that his experience in Africa was “mind bending and soul sapping” and that he was “mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted and (he) really needed something to pull (him) out of this funk” (Songfacts, 2021). The result: going into the studio and recording the song within an hour at 7:00 in the morning.
Ironically, Life is a Highway is the most positive song Cochrane has ever written and was born out of a difficult experience. According to the Canadian singer-songwriter, the song became a “pep talk” for him and for millions around the world (Songfacts, 2021).
When thinking about emotional intelligence (commonly referred to as “EI”), Tom Cochrane’s story and how he found the inspiration to write it illustrates beautifully how EI can act as a mitigating measure when faced with adversity or difficult life experiences. Without having assessed Cochrane in any way, and solely basing ourselves on anecdotal evidence, it can easily be hypothesized that Cochrane was able to tap into his creativity to help him deal with what was undoubtedly a traumatic experience. This same creativity allowed him to not only process his own emotions, but also to manage others’ emotions, which resulted in him achieving greater levels of self-control, thus resulting in fostering higher levels of resilience.
What the Evidence Tells Us
According to Salovey and Mayer (1990), emotional intelligence can be broadly defined as a “subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (p. 189). In his book Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1995), Daniel Goleman provided a clear framework to define the various components of emotional intelligence. These components are (1) self-awareness; (2) self-regulation; (3) motivation; (4) empathy; and (5) social skills.
People who benefit from strong levels of emotional intelligence are therefore keenly aware of their emotions and regulate them well. In other words, they have good self-control when faced with emotionally charged situations and do not allow their emotions to rule them (Mind Tools, 2021). This allows them to manage their impulses, making it so that they typically do not allow themselves to become too angry or jealous, and will not make impulsive, or careless decisions (Mind Tools, 2021). Characteristics of self-regulation usually include thoughtfulness, comfortable with change, integrity, and the ability to set clear boundaries (Mind Tools, 2021).
Moreover, people with high levels of emotional intelligence also show high signs of motivation and can usually temper their fervor for immediate results, preferring long-term successes (Mind Tools, 2021). They usually enjoy challenges, which keep them productive and effective in their work (Mind Tools, 2021). Goleman’s framework of emotional intelligence would not be complete without the components of empathy and social skills.
Highly emotionally intelligent people can easily show empathy towards others, understanding the wants, needs, and viewpoints of those around them (Mind Tools, 2021). They are usually easy to talk to, are excellent communicators, can manage conflict, are typically team players, and pros in maintaining and building interpersonal relationships (Mind Tools, 2021). Rather than focusing on their own successes, they enjoy helping others develop and achieve a sense of accomplishment first (Mind Tools, 2021).
Many studies have attempted to find some interesting correlations between emotional intelligence and improved psychological and physical health.
Enhancing Physical Health
Correlation with coronary heart disease
Emotional Intelligence has been seen as having beneficial properties for physical health. Given the growing body of evidence linking coronary heart disease to mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders (e.g., overt anxiety) and mood disorders (e.g., depression) (Day, Freedland, & Carney, 2005; Denollet, Strik, Lousberg, & Honig, 2006; Kubzansky, Cole, Kawachi, Vokonas, & Sparrow, 2006; Panagiotakos, Pitsavos, Chrysohoou, Stefanadis, & Toutouzas, 2002; Rugulies, 2002; Strik, Denollet, Lousberg, & Honig, 2003), a team of Greek researchers wondered whether a causal link could be found with emotional intelligence and coronary heart disease.
In their study, fifty-six (N = 56) patients with coronary heart disease and an equal number of controls without any indications of heart disease completed two self-report questionnaires, which assessed components of trait emotional intelligence, such as emotion perception, emotion regulation, emotion expression, and use of emotions. The results of the study indicated that facets of trait emotional intelligence, such as a decreased ability to use and regulate emotions as well as the frequency of negative expressiveness were associated with a higher incidence of coronary heart disease. In other words, people who exhibited a higher level of emotional distress and struggled with regulating their own emotions, were more likely to develop coronary heart disease. Conversely, people who managed and regulated their emotions more effectively in everyday life, and expressed negative emotions less often, had more protection against coronary heart disease.
While this study’s results cannot be extrapolated to the general population, it remains nonetheless interesting and further contributes to the body of evidence that seem to support Gross and John’s (2003) theory that posits that individuals who regularly use various strategies to regulate their emotions have greater levels of wellbeing in various areas of their lives (e.g., life satisfaction, self-esteem, autonomy, personal growth, etc.).
Correlation with type II diabetes
Another study looked at patients diagnosed with type II diabetes and whether higher levels of emotional intelligence predicted better diabetes and blood sugar control management. Of note, it is not uncommon to see co-occurring medical conditions within a specific subset of the population. Depression is one such medical condition that has received much attention in the scientific literature as a co-occurring (or comorbid) condition in patients diagnosed with diabetes. Several metanalyses have revealed that depression can be two-to-three times higher in people with diabetes than the general population (Anderson et al., 2001; Roy & Lloyd, 2012).
To further understand the correlation between emotional intelligence and type II diabetes, Schinckus et al. (2018) conducted two studies. The first one investigated whether the level of trait EI of people with diabetes differed from the non-diabetes population, while the second study explored the impact of trait EI on diabetes-related distress and diabetes self-management behaviors. The results indicated that people suffering from diabetes had significantly lower levels of trait EI than their control counterparts, however this distinction was essentially due to differences in gender, age, educational level, and BMI. Trait EI influenced diabetes self-management behaviors, indicating that type II diabetes patients with higher EI had better blood sugar control. In addition, patients who received EI training saw an improvement in their blood sugar and diabetes management.
While these studies are not exhaustive in nature, there are many more that make up the body of evidence to support that emotional intelligence may contribute to superior health outcomes, especially for people with chronic conditions because those with lower EI find it more challenging to stick with treatment plans and lifestyle changes that will improve their overall quality of life.
Fostering Psychological Health
Emotional intelligence has also been found to protect against stress and mental illness. In one study, Ciarrochi, Deane, and Anderson (2002) hypothesized that higher emotional intelligence levels would make a positive contribution in three specific mental health variables: depression, hopelessness, and suicidality. Their study assessed three hundred and two (N = 302) University students on measures that looked at life stress, objective and self-reported emotional intelligence, and mental health.
The results of the study revealed that stress was correlated with greater levels of depression, hopelessness, and suicidality in participants who had higher levels of emotional perception (EP) in comparison to others. This therefore suggests that individuals with higher levels of emotional perception may be more sensitive or have a lower tolerance to stress, thus indicating that they would score lower on the peace of mind construct that is commonly assessed in emotional intelligence self-reported questionnaires. Conversely, people who had a lower ability in managing others’ emotions (MOE) reported higher levels of suicidality. In other words, those who could better regulate their emotions when faced with other people’s emotional reactions (or outbursts) showed stronger response skills to stress and decreased levels of suicidal ideation in response to stress.
Another study conducted by researchers from McMaster, Trent, and Ryerson Universities, examined whether an association between clinical anxiety, domains of emotional intelligence (EI) and three clinician-rated indices of maladjustment could be found. The researchers posited that social phobia is a unique anxiety disorder and might be characterized by lower levels of interpersonal and intrapersonal emotional intelligence (that is more difficulty in regulating one’s and others’ emotions). One hundred and sixty-nine (N = 169) individuals diagnosed with social phobia, along with sixty-five (N = 65) individuals diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and sixty-four (N = 64) patients diagnosed with panic disorder, and one hundred and sixty-nine (N = 169) nonclinical controls completed the short form self-report Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i: S).
All anxiety disorder groups showed lower total EI than controls and differed among themselves with the social phobia group displaying the lowest levels of total EI and lower scores on two EQ-i:S subscales (Interpersonal and, more robustly, Intrapersonal). The Intrapersonal dimension alone predicted all indices of greater maladjustment in the social phobia group. These findings indicate a negative relationship between anxiety disorders and EI and reaffirm the foremost link between Intrapersonal EI and social phobia and its functional outcomes.
So, What Does it all Mean?
The World Health Organization states that wellbeing is “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” and that in the presence of disease and infirmity, it is well-managed or controlled. Although the above-mentioned studies are not exhaustive and cannot necessarily be applied to the general population, they do shed more light on emotional intelligence and its potential contribution to wellness. Knowing more about one’s emotional intelligence can therefore be beneficial in learning more about one’s behaviors and reactions when faced with emotionally charged situations, including, but not limited to adverse life experiences. It is in further understanding one’s emotional reactions, that one can further determine their “triggers” and take the necessary steps to help curb the oftentimes knee-jerk reactions that can result from them.
Given Goleman’s framework and the positive outcomes that have been observed from the studies cited above, it would be ideal to possess higher levels of emotional intelligence to benefit from increased wellbeing. However, the adage easier said than done can easily be applied to this statement. Nevertheless, research has shown that there are simple strategies that can aid us in further fostering our emotional intelligence. Consider these strategies provided by the Mind Tools website (2021):
- Observe your reactions to people and events.
What do you notice? Are you typically the type to make or pass judgment without first obtaining all the facts? Do you stereotype people? Take a pulse check or “cold, hard, look in the mirror” and try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.
- Consider your accomplishments and the emotions that result from these.
While pride is very healthy, it can at times be misplaced and be viewed as arrogance or overconfidence, oftentimes leading to condescension. Humility is a wonderful trait to embrace and being humble does not mean that you lack self-confidence or think less of yourself and your skill set. When you practice humility, you are still demonstrating quiet confidence, however you are giving the other members of your team an opportunity to shine.
- Take a standardized emotional intelligence test.
Find out your results and where both your strengths and areas for improvement lie. With a standardized report, you will be able to gain additional insights and learn new strategies to help improve your overall emotional intelligence levels. Having the courage to honestly look at yourself could easily improve your life – and that of others.
- Take a step back to examine how you process and handle emotionally charged situations.
Do you easily become upset? Or are you able to allow the dust to settle and then react? Do you have the tendency to internalize the situation (that is, do you blame yourself even if it is not your fault?) or externalize the situation (do you blame others and easily become angry, even when it’s not their fault)? Staying calm when you are faced with stressful situations is not only an art – it is a skill set and the better you are at it, the more emotionally intelligent you will be, and more valued as an employee.
- Take responsibility for your actions.
As the saying goes: To err is human, to forgive, divine. Forgiveness is not only for those who have offended you, but it is also crucial to apply to yourself when you have erred or hurt someone. Forgiving yourself allows you to show self-compassion. And if you can learn to show self-compassion, you will be able to show compassion to others when they err. Apologizing to someone whose feelings you have hurt is indicative of higher levels of emotional intelligence as it manifests empathy: you recognize what you have done, you feel regret, and you do not ignore what you did, nor do you avoid the person. Apologizing is also a sign of good self-esteem, which has also been positively linked to emotional intelligence.
- Evaluate how your actions will affect others.
When taking a decision, especially in the workplace, try to take a step back and think how your actions might affect another team member. How would they feel if you did X, Y, or Z? Try applying either the golden rule or the platinum rule. The golden rule is treating others as you would want them to treat you; the platinum rule is treating others as they would want to be treated. Regardless of the rule you wish to apply, always ask yourself if your decisions and subsequently your actions will be true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind. In other words, always T-H-I-N-K before you act.
Emotional Intelligence. Truly the roadmap to wellness. And, in the meantime, take some time to listen to Life is a Highway by our beloved Tom Cochrane, or if you prefer, the remake by the Rascal Flatts, that incidentally was featured on Disney’s Cars soundtrack. We can always make a little room for Lightening McQueen. And who knows? You might just win the Piston Cup in the EI race! 😊