What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Updated October 27, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Intelligence is often something that we think of in academic terms. We tend to think of intelligence as being the ability to perform well on a test or the ability to grasp difficult subjects more easily than other people do. However, there are many forms of intelligence, and not all of them relate to things like academic ability. Emotional intelligence is one type of intelligence that people may have in greater or lesser degrees. Let’s explore what emotional intelligence is and how it can affect things like our relationships, our success at work, and our mental health.

The Characteristics Of Emotional Intelligence

Having Difficulty Understanding And Managing Emotions?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to control, use, understand, and recognize emotions in ourselves and in other people. The degree to which one can successfully recognize, manage, and understand emotions differs from person to person. This ability partly may be a result of a person’s neurology, but it’s also partly a learned skill that can evolve over time.

The term “emotional intelligence” seems to have first appeared a book titled The Communication of Emotional Meaning in 1964. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that psychologists and others began working with this concept in more depth. The best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, by science writer Daniel Goleman, brought the concept of emotional intelligence into the public eye in 1995.

Psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer proposed four fundamental characteristics of emotional intelligence in 1997, and in a 2006 essay Salovey and coauthor Daisy D. Grewal briefly described these characteristics as “(a) perceiving emotions, (b) using emotions to facilitate thought, (c) understanding emotions, and (d) managing emotions in the self and others.”

These four characteristics of emotional intelligence are complex, and each subsequent characteristic builds on and integrates the ones that came before. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Perceiving Emotions

When we appropriately perceive emotions, we can recognize our feelings and those of others. Knowing what we ourselves are feeling, or what others might be feeling in a given situation can help us to navigate that situation with greater ease. In their 1997 essay, Mayer and Salovey also noted that an ability to perceive emotions can help us to understand works of art or music, and to understand whether someone is being truthful with us or not. Our ability to perceive emotions also seems to be connected to our ability to express our feelings in order to meet our physical, emotional, and mental needs.

Some people have an inability to recognize and understand emotions in themselves and others. This condition is called alexithymia, a term coined by psychiatrist Peter Sifneos. The word alexithymia comes from the Greek meaning “lacking words for emotions.” Alexithymia sometimes is connected to traumatic experiences or to physical brain injury, but sometimes it presents as part of healthy neurodivergent neurologies such as autism. Salovey and Grewal note that alexithymic people may have a hard time navigating some situations because they are unable to accurately perceive the emotional factors involved.

Using Emotions To Facilitate Thought

According to Mayer and Salovey, the emotions that become attached to performing certain tasks can assist us in accomplishing what we have set out to do. Also, they point out that our current feelings or expectations about the emotional quality of something that might happen in the future can affect how we make decisions and how we plan for things that haven’t happened yet.

Examples of how this might work are finishing a task that needs to be done at a particular time in order to allay any worries one might have about the task, or deciding one course of action because one feels poorly about the situation at the time, but making a different choice when one’s mood changes. Mayer and Salovey also note that an ability to imagine and anticipate how a new situation might feel can help a person make decisions about how to approach that situation and resolve any challenges that might come up once the person is actually in that situation.

Understanding Emotions

Understanding our emotions usually entails being able to identify what our feelings are in various circumstances, and to see how those feelings might change from one type to another over time. It allows us to name and navigate emotions that can be very complex or even contradictory, for example, when someone moves away from home for the first time and might be feeling both excitement and fear. Being able to understand emotions in ourselves and others also allows us to anticipate how other people might behave based on the emotions that we perceive they are experiencing.

Mayer and Salovey note that part of understanding emotions is knowing that emotions can exist in connected chains. Mayer and Salovey give the examples of anger being transformed into rage, or of how feeling unlovable can lead someone to reject an offer of help or of a relationship.

Managing Emotions

We are successful at managing our emotions when we can remain objective when it comes to our feelings. One way we can do this is to try to feel our emotions without attaching judgment to them. When our emotions are well-managed, we may be able to limit the impact our negative feelings have on us, and we may become able to encourage positive emotions in their place. Accepting all our emotions, whether they are positive or negative, and being able to pinpoint how they impact our lives, can be an important skill. Having this skill can potentially affect the success of our relationships with other people and of our work.

Why Does Emotional Intelligence Matter?

Having high emotional intelligence has a range of benefits. Individuals with high emotional intelligence are often better able to achieve success in many areas. Below is a discussion of some of the things that can be affected by emotional intelligence.

Making Decisions

People who can separate emotions from thoughts are better able to make decisions based on careful consideration, instead of on in-the-moment feelings. Reducing impulsivity can be especially beneficial when the decision to be made might have major consequences for the future. Emotional intelligence may allow us to take calculated risks and to control the amount of influence our emotions have on our choices, and therefore on what might happen in our future.

Being Empathetic Towards Others

Empathy is the ability to view someone’s situation from their perspective, and emotional intelligence is an important part of the ability to empathize with others. Empathy can connect us to one another and is one of the things that allows us to be helpful, caring, or supportive to those in need. Society often functions more smoothly when people have empathy for one another, because empathy can create a strong foundation for all relationships, whether personal or romantic, or in the business world.

Successful Leadership

Successful leaders are often described as having high levels of emotional intelligence. Beyond possessing critical decision-making skills and having the ability to meet the needs of others, emotionally intelligent leaders usually have some combination of the following characteristics:

  • They are often able to motivate themselves and others.
  • They usually have a realistic, yet optimistic, understanding of what the future might hold.
  • They often have a genuine and balanced personality that makes them well-liked.
  • They are usually able to understand and manage their own emotions well.
  • They are often aware of what other people are feeling and can use that information to make decisions and create a good workplace culture.

Leaders who have high emotional intelligence often have an easier time managing the people who work for them, because their workers may be more likely to respond well to their leadership style.

Healthy Minds

Limiting the negative impact of our emotions and not becoming attached to our thoughts can contribute to good mental health. Being able to understand and think through anxiety-provoking situations, as well as having the ability to move forward after setbacks, may contribute to lower levels of anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that there may be links between some mental health conditions and greater difficulty in understanding and managing one’s emotions.

Healthy Bodies

Emotional intelligence is one tool that may allow us to manage our stress levels, which in turn can lead to improved physical health. Understanding our emotions and using them effectively may help us combat the effects of stress. We can do this through meditation, yoga, or other activities that help us calm ourselves and connect to our minds and bodies. Understanding how we feel about a particular circumstance or relationship can help us to set healthy boundaries, or can lead us to spend more time with people and in situations that make us feel happy and welcome.

Measuring Emotional Intelligence

Having Difficulty Understanding And Managing Emotions?

Since the 1990s, psychologists and psychiatrists have been working to develop tests that measure emotional intelligence. These are sometimes called EQ tests, or emotional quotient tests. EQ tests are usually meant to measure how someone might respond to different situations, yielding an idea about how emotionally intelligent they are.

Although a quick Google search can lead you to a number of free EQ tests online, it’s important to note that not all EQ tests are equally reliable, and there is still some discussion among psychologists concerning how well such tests actually measure a person’s emotional intelligence, assuming that EQ is something that can be accurately measured by a test in the first place.

EQ tests are typically in multiple-choice format, and ask you to imagine yourself in various scenarios and describe how you would respond to each situation. Some of these tests also may show you a photograph of a person making a facial expression and ask you to identify which emotion they are showing. Some online tests will give you immediate results and may also offer resources and recommendations to help you increase your emotional intelligence. However, it’s important to remember that such online tests are not intended to be diagnostic tools, and that they’re usually not a good substitute for care from a qualified mental health professional.

Help Managing Emotions

While it can be fun to take an online EQ test to learn something about yourself, it’s important to remember that emotional intelligence is a highly complex and multi-faceted issue. An online EQ test might show you areas of strength and weakness, to give you pointers about areas you might want to improve, but it’s unlikely to accurately capture everything about you.

If you’re having difficulty understanding, feeling, or managing your emotions, there might be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Working with a licensed therapist, whether in person or online through a service such as BetterHelp, can get you on the path to being more in touch with and better able to control your emotions, so that you can begin to improve your emotional intelligence.

Studies have shown that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person meetings. Other benefits of meeting with your therapist online include being able to attend your appointments in the comfort and privacy of your own home, and in some cases, online therapy may be less expensive than traditional in-person sessions.


Emotional intelligence is a complex facet of human nature. Identifying, understanding, using, and managing our emotions can be important tools to help us create healthy relationships and be successful in the workplace. Help is available from qualified mental health professionals if we are having trouble with our emotions and want to increase our emotional intelligence.

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