We are constantly reminded by sad stories in the news of the ever-increasing rates of depression, as well as being witness to daily episodes of uncontrolled anger, stress, and melancholy that we often witness with our own eyes: in this day and age, there is an increasingly pressing feeling of never having complete control over our emotions. Fortunately, neuroscience is making progress in this area: we are always learning more about emotions and how they work, thus discovering more and more ways to offer remedies to the emotional crises that afflict modern society. New scientific discoveries attribute increasing importance to emotional intelligence: we will only be able to aspire to a more peaceful future if we learn to cultivate emotional intelligence in a systematic way, because, in doing so, we will be able to consciously manage our emotions.
So, why are emotions so prevalent in our lives, in the first place? There are situations or tasks that are too difficult to be entrusted to the rational intellect alone: painful losses, moments of great danger, starting a family. We all know this from personal experience: when the time comes to make decisions and to act, feelings matter as much as rational thinking, sometimes even more so. Therefore, a model of human nature that ignored the power of emotions would be pretty ineffective. Feelings are usually indispensable in the rational mind’s decision-making processes, helping to point us in the right direction, where pure logic will then be able to perform at its best. In cases where life's decisions become complex, the emotional teachings that life itself has imparted to us send signals that restrict the range of appropriate options, making it easier for us to reach a decision.
In practice, it is as if we have two distinct minds: one thinks, and the other feels. They are two “modalities of knowledge”, fundamentally different, but which interact to build our mental life. The rational mind is the mode of understanding which we are usually conscious of: it dominates awareness and reflection, and it is capable of pondering and reflecting. The emotional mind is the other side of the coin: impulsive and sometimes illogical, but very powerful. It comes out when we have feelings, and the more intense the feeling, the more dominant the emotional mind becomes, and the less effective the rational one.
These two minds almost always work in a perfectly coordinated way, but when passions intensify, the equilibrium is overturned and the emotional mind takes over, overwhelming our capacity for reasoning. Associated with this problem is the fact that, as we said, emotions help us make decisions and, therefore, dictate our actions. Emotions are, in fact, impulses to action, which evolution has endowed us with to manage life’s emergencies in real time. The etymology of the word “emotion”, which comes from the Latin moveo, or "move", actually illustrates this. The problem becomes clear when we look at how civilisation has progressed over time: it has happened so quickly, that evolution has not been able to keep up, forcing us to live the typical dilemmas of the postmodern era without having developed an adequate emotional repertoire. It is not surprising, therefore, that all too often we see a disconnect between the emotion felt by a person, and the corresponding action.
Faced with this disconnect, as well as the capacity of the emotional mind to overwhelm the rational one, the need to develop emotional intelligence becomes clear: it is a set of skills that allows us to increase our self-awareness, control our negative feelings more effectively, maintain our optimism, persevere despite frustrations, increase our capacity to empathise and care for others, and cooperate and establish social bonds.