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Last Updated: Friday, 7 September 2007, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Teach yourself happy

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Lessons in emotions should be introduced in all schools in England, says the government, in the latest twist on what's known as "emotional intelligence". But can children really be taught how to be happy?

Do you offer complete strangers a shoulder to cry on when England fail to fulfil their potential in yet another World Cup? Or did you shed a few tears of your own when Take That got back together - after crying a river when they split up?

There's a term for people like you - and it's one you can repeat in front of your mother. In fact, she might even be proud to know you're what psychologists call "emotionally intelligent".

Being aware of your emotions and managing them, along with those of other people, is nothing new - be it crying over the football, the birth of a child or a death. The importance of emotional expression was debated by the likes of Plato and entered the work of people like Charles Darwin.

Football fan
Knowing your emotions
Managing your own emotions
Motivating yourself
Recognising and understanding other people's emotions
Handling the emotions of others
Source: Daniel Goleman

But the term emotional intelligence (EI) is a relatively new one. Despite its recent arrival it has become embedded in our vernacular and linked to almost every area of life. From contentment in your home life to success in the workplace, it always seems irrevocably wrapped up in your ability to get in touch with your feeling - and others.

The government even wants EI taught in all classrooms. A pilot scheme in primary schools found it improved behaviour and academic performance. This week ministers announced they now wanted to extend such lessons to secondary schools.

So when did EI become so important and why? The term - and the theory behind it - was popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman. His book of the same name became a bestseller in 1995 and sold millions of copies worldwide.

From there a whole industry rapidly grew. If you work you might have been on a training course to help you develop your EI, run by the one of a multitude of EI institutes, companies and organisations.

If you watch television, you'll be familiar with the confessional, soul searching programme format that seems to constantly be on our screens, of which Oprah Winfrey is the queen.


Its rise has run parallel with the growth of the feelings culture in western society, say some psychologists. Which came first is a classic chicken-and-egg quandary, but what is clear is both have flourished with the help of each other.

"The primary reason emotional intelligence is so popular is that the concept is in tune with the spirit and popular culture of the times," says psychologist Gerry Matthews, co-author of Emotional Intelligence: Science and Myth.

"Western culture has a long history of equivocation about the value of emotions, and the extent to which the head should over-rule the heart. Recent years have seen increasing value placed on awareness and expression of emotions.

Take That and a fan
Just plain emotional?
"Enthusiasm for it probably also resonates with a disenchantment with a society that seems increasingly set on reducing individuals to numbers, through things like standardised testing and biometric data."

The fact it's a "different way of being smart" is also key to its popularity, say others. The theory argues that IQ is not the only thing that dictates how successful we are.

"We live in a society where people don't like to think others are better than them, so we come up with these phrases to make everyone feel they are intelligent in their own special way," says philosopher Julian Baggini. "It feels egalitarian, no one can be written off by society."

It's a theory that has a lot of positives. Acknowledging all sorts of social and moral situations require emotional insight to come to the right decision is a "positive thing", says Mr Baggini.

But there's also been a lot of hype about EI and some doubt its scientific credentials.

'Cultural influences'

"It is a great commercial opportunity for some," says Professor Goleman. "Money can be made through marketing new tests and training courses for industry. Some of the marketing efforts have been pretty aggressive."

He argues there is a fundamental difficulty in testing EI and it's often impossible to specify objectively what is the most emotionally intelligent behaviour in a given situation.

"Tests for EI are of limited value in that the test score tends to reflect a subjective judgment as to what are the 'right' and 'wrong' answers - whether the judgement comes from the developer, outside experts or group consensus.

Charity wristband
EI can be used in the wrong way
"Such judgments are likely to be dependent on social and cultural influences. If the tests had been invented 50 years ago, they would probably have rewarded a 'stiff upper lip' and constrained emotional expression, in contrast to contemporary tests."

The current emergence of EI into education is a direct result of the introduction National Curriculum in 1988, says Professor Susan Hallam, author of the Institute of Education (IoE) study looking at the teaching of EI in primary schools.

"Prior to the National Curriculum schools had a duty to develop the whole child, that flew out of the window when it was introduced," she says.

The IoE's study showed positive results from the introduction of lessons in EI - from the classroom to the playground - but Professor Hallam says the term in general is "a bit of a red herring".

Label lovers

"Emotional intelligence and understanding your own emotions does not mean you use them in a positive way. It's the same in schools as it is in society.

"It's not only about being aware of the way you, and others, feel - there's a moral element. Bullies are often very emotionally intelligent, they just don't use it in a positive way."

Including a moral framework into EI lessons is a key part of their success, she says.

Ultimately, like any theory, EI will always be open to debate. But maybe its rapid rise in the public consciousness comes down to something rather simple - people like to put labels on things.

"We love doing it because it validates something and makes it seem more real," says Mr Baggini.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I work with kids and schools and use Emotional Literacy - same concept! I wholly support that schools should grasp this concept with both hands and teach it/embrace it with kids from a very early age.
Anon, Lancashire

"Lessons in emotions?" Oh please! People smile when they are happy. If for some reason an individual finds it difficult to laugh or smile, could it be possible or, if not indeed, probable that that person is not happy. A persons unhappy can be triggered by deep issues. So how can school or classes be the answer to making someone smile until these classes are prepared to understand each individuals deep and personal issues in order to try and assist the psychological issues of that person. Sounds like a cheap, nasty, unworkable answer to 'good ole fashion' counselling to me.
Ivor, London, ENGLAND

Teaching EI in schools will be subject to the same right-on trendyism that PHSE - personal, social and health education - and Citizenship are. My children were reticent and still dislike public emotional display in others as well as themselves. I can imagine their school reports stating that they have "failed" [though I believe that particular F-word is no longer allowed in state schools] EI because their stiff upper lips and distaste for US-import hugging and kissing didn't fit the PC bill. In fact I'm surprised I haven't been arrested for emotionally crippling them.
Diane Baker, Leeds UK

Why is crying about something classed as being emotionally intelligent. Correct me if I'm wrong but it seems then that emotional intelligence is less about managing your emotions and more about letting everyone else know how you feel. If EI is based upon emotional management then those who feel it but only choose when to show it should score more highly. It's another way to imprint positivity on a nation of idiots. Keep 'em happy. No revolts.
Bill, London

It is essential that people learn how to manage their emotions and feelings so that they can behave in a way that does not adversely affect other people. There is a culture of people feeling that their own self-expression is more important than the rights of people around them, and it is this type of belief that should be addressed and dispelled.
Karl Chads, London, UK

This is just where fathers are important for children. Respect is learnt in the rough & tumble that dads always play with their young children. With the epidemic of fatherlessness from the appalling way family courts are treating fathers and children post separation, many children are not getting these crucial lessons, as about 25% of children are fatherless, this significant group will be making respect uncool. Education later is teaching after the 'hardwiring of the brain' has been set, like closing the door after the horse has bolted. Solve family law, solve respect!
Peter, NorthWest

As Ron Weasley has the emotional range of a teaspoon (Hermione: The Order of the Phoenix), I guess Hogwarts needs to introduce this subject.
Tim Fox, Beckenham

Emotional intelligence is only partly about "being emotional" - it's more to do with being in touch with your feelings, or emotional maturity. Anger management or assertiveness training would come under EI for instance. Therefore it seems to me a legitimate subject for study at school - and if more time were spent on EI bad behaviour among young people would certainly diminish, both in schools and in the wider world.
John Gammon, Brighton, UK

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