Ten years ago (give or take) psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote a book called Emotional Intelligence; opening the first chapter with the unforgettable story of a middle-aged black gentleman who drove the Madison Avenue bus through New York City. On this particular sweltering August afternoon; the kind that made most people “sullen with discomfort”, the bus driver greeted each disgruntled-looking passenger with a hearty welcome and enthusiastic smile; even though few passengers returned his greeting. Then, as the bus continued on its journey through the hot city streets, the driver suddenly began to channel his inner tour guide; pointing out the treasures of the city as they rode by; remarking about this wonderful museum exhibit, that terrific restaurant over there, or the flea market of interest down the block. He could tell by looking at the expressions on his customers’ faces, that they could use an uplifting distraction. And he cared enough to be the one to put a smile on their faces.
By the time each passenger came forward to step down from the bus, they made it a point to thank the driver, wish him a wonderful day, and wave him on to his next stop with a smile. Just like that, they were transformed.
Good feelings all around.
Knowing how to engage in positive social interactions (i.e.. no fighting, no arguing, no negative criticisms, or political put-downs if someone didn’t vote the way you did) is a skill that goes beyond the academic IQ test. EQ is a form of intelligence all its own. Emotional intelligence, as Goleman called it, makes us—and others–happier. It also helps us guard against loneliness—which affects older adults at alarming rates as our pool of friends dwindles, families become estranged, and divorce or widowhood becomes increasingly commonplace.
The ability to empathize with other people and interpret their mental state (needs, desires, motives, feelings and thoughts) is referred to as Theory of Mind or ToM. All positive human interaction depends on this ability to see things from another viewpoint. The bus driver in Dr. Goleman’s story knew that his passengers were not just scowly for the purpose of being unpleasant. They were unpleasant because they were hot, uncomfortable, and had been waiting at the bus stop under a hot summer sun. He didn’t snarl back at them, he felt their pain, and wanted to do something about it.
Unfortunately, research shows that the older we get, we tend to lose some of ability to decode what others are feeling and thinking; which makes us less adept at the kind of interactions we need at a time in our life when we need them most. Various ToM training programs have found to help, but a technique that I hadn’t expected to come across was the 5-minute meditation.
In this study half of the participants were assigned to the control group, whereby for five minutes they were to asked to sit, breathe, notice their thoughts and immerse themselves in them. The other half were in the the mindfulness meditation group where they also sat for 5 minutes, but were instructed to treat their thoughts as fleeting and keep returning their attention to their breathing for the entire 5 minutes.
Then both groups were given two tasks:
- One task was to decipher various emotional states expressed by photographs of 36 pair of eyes (both male and female).
- The other task involved watching a video clip involving 3 cartoon figures playing a ball toss game. One figure was excluded by the other two players during the toss game. At the end of that video both groups were asked to write letters to the player that was excluded.
The mindfulness group in both instances outperformed the group that did not engage in the meditation. They were able to mind read emotional states from looking at the photos of eye expressions, and they also expressed more empathy when writing letters to the player that was left out of the toss game.
If you want to maintain or increase your emotional intelligence and have more positive and less abrasive (irritating, emotionally charged, argumentative etc.) interactions with people, try taking a 5 minute mindfulness breathing meditation break before you leave your house or whenever you can throughout the day. It will soften you, make you feel happier, and draw people to your calm and wise demeanor.
Here’s my favorite 5 minute Mindful Meditation Technique:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of 4 (concentrate only on the counting as you breathe)
- Hold the breath for a count of 7
- Breather out slowly through pursed lips to a count of 9
Do this practice whenever you need it and watch your demeanor change and the quality of your relationships improve.
Let me know how short mindfulness meditation breaks are changing your life and social interactions.
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Goleman, Daniel (2006) Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam
Tan ,B.G., Lo, B.C., & MaCrae, N. (2014) Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Mental State Attribution and Empathizing.
© Raeleen Mautner, LLC