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A New Hope for Building Your Emotional Intelligence

New research shows the skill that can make you more emotionally intelligent.

Do you ever wonder whether it’s better to show your emotions or to keep them hidden? Perhaps your hairstylist cuts your hair much shorter than you asked for. Do you decide it’s better just to wait till it grows back in (and find a different stylist), or should you let the manager know how infuriated you are? Either strategy has pros and cons, so which is the lesser of the two evils?
According to a recent study by the University of Catania’s Maria Quattropani and colleagues (2022), most situations present two starkly different alternatives for managing your emotions, and it is indeed often hard to know which way to react. The key to healthy adjustment, they argued, isn’t always being right about your choice but being able to see that there is indeed a choice.
They noted that “flexibility in emotion regulation represents a central tenet for overall psychological adjustment” (p. 698). In other words, some situations call for expression, and some for suppression. Even if you take the wrong turn in this dilemma, at least you’re able to see that life often presents more gray than black-and-white areas when it comes to handling your emotions.
Emotional Flexibility and Its Measurement
You might think that all of these choices would depend on the quality of your emotional intelligence. But what if your emotional intelligence isn’t all that high? Are you stuck in an endless loop of constantly saying and doing the wrong thing?
The idea of emotional flexibility can become your saving grace. Even if you don’t top out at the positive end of the emotional intelligence curve, Quattropani et al.’s research suggested using emotional flexibility as your go-to alternative skill.
You can get an idea of what this quality looks like by seeing where you rate on the measure the Italian research team used, the “Flexible Regulation of Emotional Expression” scale, abbreviated as “FREE” (Burton & Bonanno, 2016). To complete this scale, you put yourself into 16 situations that fall into four categories based on the emotion involved in the situation (positive or negative) and your reaction to that emotion (express or conceal). For each, you are to rate yourself from “unable” to “very able” to be even more expressive of how you were feeling.

See how you would do on these four sample items:
Positive-Expressive: You receive a gift from a family member, but it’s a shirt you dislike.
Negative-Expressive: Your friend is telling you about what a terrible day they had.
Positive-Conceal: You are in a training session and see an accidentally funny typo in the presenter’s slideshow.
Negative-Conceal: You are at a social event, and the person you’re talking to frequently spits while they speak.
How did you do? Were you perhaps confused by the positive-negative distinction? The thinking behind this scale is that you are able to use cues from context to decide whether to show or hide your feelings. Thus, someone giving you a shirt you don’t like for a present would be a situation in which you would be expected to show positive emotions even though you don’t feel them.
In the scenario involving the typo, there is a positive emotion that you feel that you need to conceal or else face condemnation from others in the room (even though they may have the same reactions as you do).
Tying Emotional Flexibility to Mental Health
The U. Catania researchers translated FREE items into Italian (and double-checked them for meaning) and administered them to an online sample of 503 adults ages 21 to 72 (average 29 years old), most of whom (85 percent) were female. In addition to the FREE scale, participants completed measures that, combined, assess the trait of emotional intelligence: well-being, self-control, typical emotionality, and sociability. The research team included 12-item standard symptom checklists to assess mental and physical health.
Using a statistical model that allowed them to evaluate each possible predictor of health separately, Quattropani and her associates demonstrated that, consistent with previous emotional intelligence research, those four trait-like qualities predicted positive health outcomes. However, even after taking these scores into account, FREE scores added their predictive value, with enhancement negatively and suppression positively relating to psychological well-being. Thus, less enhancement and more suppression seemed to provide the magic formula for emotional flexibility’s relation to positive outcomes.
Training Your Emotional Flexibility
If you take as your starting point your assessment of your emotional intelligence (honestly appraised) and find that you don’t think you’re all that adept, the Italian findings provide hope that change may be possible. Putting yourself back into those scenarios now, imagine whether it’s good to put on a show of tremendous happiness at a gift you don’t like. Based on these findings, it’s not. This may be because other people can sense that you’re going overboard in your reaction and therefore become offended or because you’re making yourself feel something you don’t.
Conversely, in suppression scenarios, covering up an emotion inappropriate to the situation for different reasons may benefit you in other ways. Your job is to use your emotions to foster good relationships and attend to your psychological health. A small degree of covering up may allow you to accomplish both goals.
Looking at the larger picture, you can now see why the quality of emotional flexibility can be so important. You don’t want to go through life always showing the same emotion or over- or under-expressing your feelings. Gauging how you react to the dual demands of situations and your inner state can help you make up for whatever you lack in your basic emotional intelligence.

To Sum Up
Your route down the pathway to fulfillment is greatly eased by being high in your ability to read people, situations, and your inner state. Practicing the skill of emotional flexibility can help you find the ideal balance as you adapt to life’s many emotional quandaries.

psychology today

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Do Introverts Really Have Less Fun?

New research traces whether introverts can squeeze joy out of their daily lives.

Finding joy in everyday experiences is an important way to keep yourself stressless and carefree. It may be something as simple as a young relative taking your hand as you walk down a hallway. That immediate boost helps shine a little light on your day. Known as an “uplift” in the psychological literature, such events are known to help reduce stress. Uplifts can counteract the effects of “hassles,” which are equally small events that, through wear and tear, can impact your mental and physical health.
As described in a new study by Pennsylvania State University’s Natasha DeMeo and colleagues (2023), “uplifts and hassles not only make up the topography of daily life…but these experiences… have implications for health and well-being” (p. 355). Importantly, though, people differ in their propensity to and resistance to such impacts.
Why Introverts Might Have Fewer Uplifts
Previous research has established that extraverts seek out and relish joyful experiences, even those tiny ones that qualify as uplifts. Introverts, with their greater inner focus, may be less likely to take advantage of these stress-buffering effects. However, they may also be more affected by hassles. Laboratory studies provide compelling evidence that introverts show greater emotional and physiological reactivity to external stressors. They may also be less likely to see themselves as successful copers and even take a bleaker view of a stressful situation than people high in extraversion. These self-perceptions, seen as critical in the so-called “cognitive” model of stress, can further exacerbate the deleterious effects of stress on health.
The Penn State authors note that, despite the strength of these prior studies, they may fail to capture the nuances of the personality–stress relationship. A lab study is useful for experimentation purposes, it but lacks the so-called “external validity” of seeing how people react in the context of their daily lives. Furthermore, prior studies rely on people’s memories for their hassles and uplifts, making the data subject to a retrospective bias. You can appreciate this problem if you think about the way you recall an event from several days or even hours ago. The details fade and, worse, become colored by the emotions the event arises after the fact.
Testing the Personality–Stress Link
Taking the approach that hassles and uplifts are best studied as they occur in real time, DeMeo and her collaborators used the method known as “ecological momentary assessment” (EMA). Their 242 participants ranging in age from 25 to 65 years lived in housing development in the Bronx and were part of a larger study on aging through which the EMA data were collected. Racially and ethnically diverse, nearly two-thirds were non-Hispanic Black, and a quarter were Hispanic; three-quarters either had a college degree or had at least some college courses.
Each participant was beeped through a smartphone app five times a day for 14 days. At each assessment, they reported on “any event, even a minor one, which affected [the participant] in a positive way.” If they did report an uplift, follow-up questions asked them to rate its intensity on a 1-to-100 scale. To measure introversion, the Penn State researchers administered a standard 10-item questionnaire, and the research team also measured hassles at the same time as they assessed uplifts.
The sample appeared relatively fortunate in the sense of experiencing relatively few hassles (less than 1 per day on average) and on the 0-to-100 scale, the average hassle amounted to about 67 points in intensity. Also fortunately for the sample, they reported about 19 uplifts over the 14-day period, and these qualified for a rating of nearly 80 in intensity.
Although prior research indicated a tendency for introverts to derive less joy out of their days, DeMeo et al.’s analyses hinged on the findings with respect to uplifts, based on the idea that introverts would be less sensitive to rewards. Consistent with prediction, those scoring higher on introversion reported fewer uplifts on a daily basis and they rated those uplifts as less enjoyable than did their less introverted counterparts. In round numbers, this amounted to only 15 uplifts over the two weeks that were rated as 76 rather than 79 out of 100.
Introversion alone, however, wasn’t the only factor affecting uplift ratings. When neuroticism, depression, and anxiety were taken into account, the effect of introversion remained only for frequency of uplifts, not intensity.
In terms of predictions regarding the ways that introverts would perceive their own coping abilities, the finding did emerge of a tendency for them to regard “miscellaneous” hassles (i.e., not specific to situations such as finances or traffic) as higher in intensity. As the authors concluded, “we found some preliminary evidence of person-environment interactions—where the occurrence or experience of an event depends on the characteristics of both the situation and the person” (p. 361). In other words, whether people high in introversion believe an event to be a hassle may be specific to the given situation and the match between the way they see themselves and the nature of the hassle itself.
How Introverts Can Extract More Joy From Life
As the Penn State study suggests, people who tend to focus on their inner life appear to be more resistant to the possibility that an ordinary experience, however small, could produce a rush of positive feelings. Although the authors didn’t explore this particular line of reasoning, it may very well be that this focus on an inner state may not only inoculate them from hassles but also stand in the way of the simple pleasures that are so much a part of everyday life.
Given the high stakes in terms of mental and physical health associated with achieving a favorable pleasure–pain balance, the DeMeo results suggest that it would be worth the effort for people high in introversion to find ways to let the sun shine in on a more frequent basis.
To sum up, successful coping is more than a matter of fending off the bad. Finding joy in the seemingly insignificant experiences in life can help build not only resilience but also fulfillment.

psychology today

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Can Thinking About Change Help You Actually Change?

New research examines how beliefs about change affect psychological growth.

When you think about yourself over the course of your life, which features stand out as having changed the most? Projecting into the future, what aspects of yourself would you like most to change? Perhaps you’ve struggled your entire life with feelings of low self-confidence. You’d like to think, though, that as you get older and pack more experiences under your belt, you could become better able to appreciate your strengths. Like the “Little Engine That Could,” do you “think you can”?
Personality and Beliefs About Change
Norwegian Business School's Adrian Furnham and Hogan Assessment Systems' Ryne Sherman (2023) ask the question, “We all want to believe that we can change (for the better), but are we deluded?” (p. 1). This drive for self-improvement can lead people to turn to unreliable sources, according to Furnham and Sherman, but it may also underlie the desire to seek help through psychotherapy or other change-focused treatments.
However, as you might imagine, the belief in upward growth throughout life doesn’t reside equally in everyone. That “little engine” is definitely an optimist. Indeed, the research team maintains that optimism in its many forms (religious, political, and personality) would be the main driver of an eternally sunny view of one’s own future.
Another factor that can influence your beliefs about future change is the perception that you have already changed. For example, if you see yourself as growing over time in self-confidence, however minimal, this could be enough to give you a basis for believing that trajectory will only grow over time.
As Furnham and Sherman point out, however, there can be a difference in your thoughts about future change based on the inventory you take of your various attributes. If you’ve always been punctual, you might not expect much to change in this quality, a belief that corresponds to previous research on changes in the trait of conscientiousness over adulthood. In the area of health, though, you may be convinced that change will occur, and the odds are that it will, given increases in chronic diseases over the adult years. If you’re an optimist, though, you may decide that your health doesn’t have to change if you are able to commit yourself to a regimen of better daily habits.
How Change Beliefs Actually Change
Using a sample of 510 adults (equally divided between male and female, average age 40 years), Furnham and Sherman first asked participants to rate their degree of religious beliefs, extent of political conservatism, and tendencies to be optimists. These simple questions were followed by a more extensive set of items concerning their beliefs about whether change is possible (on a 0–10 scale) in such attributes as personality, appearance, health, ambitiousness, IQ, education, hobbies, posture, height, and body shape (BMI). You might put yourself in the place of the participants here and see what your views would be.
For the next part of the study, participants rated themselves on the changes they’ve perceived in themselves over the past 10 years. Again, think about where you would come out on 0-to-10 rating in such qualities as habits, beliefs, personality, health, appearance, self-confidence, and the overall quality of “emotional intelligence” (people skills).
Adding to the mix, the research team also asked participants to rate what’s called a “mindset,” another way of approaching beliefs about personal change, In the fixed mindset, you are convinced that you’ll be the way you are now forever, but in the growth mindset, improvement is forever possible.
The final set of questions simply asked whether the respondent believes that counseling or therapy can work, whether it’s possible to change from an introvert to an extravert, and whether people become nicer/kinder as they get older. Based on some of Furman’s own musings, you might agree that these are certainly interesting questions to ponder.
Turning to the findings, participants gave the highest ratings for change beliefs in the areas of physical health, wealth, and emotional intelligence and the lowest ratings to height, religious beliefs, and punctuality. How do these compare with your own views? When it came to thinking about past changes, participants generally saw themselves as changing almost across the board, except in the area of beliefs. Almost three-quarters thought they would grow in emotional intelligence. In those general questions about change, two-thirds thought that therapy can work, but few believed that an introvert could become an extravert.
Taking on the “Changophilic” Mentality
As expected, Furnham and Sherman observed a positive correlation between the optimism item and the majority of the change belief items. However, self-esteem also factored into the equation such that it was the optimistic people who already thought more highly of themselves who were most convinced that they were capable of changing.
Altogether, as noted by the research team, a group of people in the study fit the category of what they somewhat humorously labeled “changophiles,” based on the high intercorrelation among all of their change beliefs. Potentially a new mindset factor, it would be this approach to life that could help people look at their future glass as being half-, or maybe three-quarters, full rather than steadily emptying.
In terms of the favorable attitudes participants showed toward the possibility of change through psychotherapy, there actually is a potential downside that the authors note. Being “naively optimistic” (p. 5) about what therapy can and cannot do could ironically predict failure. These high hopes could lead you to expect some kind of magical transformation instead of being prepared for the work that therapy can entail.
Left unanswered in this study, as Furnham and Sherman note, is the question of where people get the ideas that bolster their change beliefs. In part, this may be accounted for by religiosity, which was predictive of change beliefs, but, other than that, the present research couldn’t go much farther. Similarly, the question remains of whether people see changes as potentially long-lasting. You could perhaps imagine yourself reducing your weight to restore what’s considered a healthy BMI, but “often there is a clear return to the original BMI” (p. 6).
To sum up, being able to identify your own change beliefs can be a worthwhile exercise in and of itself. Reflecting on how you’ve changed so far can inform this process, but so can taking a page from the high self-esteem/high optimism group. Thinking about yourself as getting better in the future could potentially lead to the types of changes that can make these thoughts a reality.

psychology today