Cultivating emotional intelligence

Emotions are an important and inevitable part of being human. As such, they require our attention and care. Luckily, emotional intelligence can be learned, practised, and nurtured at any age or stage of life.


The holiday season gives us a range of heightened emotions: a crackling fire can ignite deep contentment, hosting family and friends can inspire both excitement and anxiety, and the anticipation of the New Year can bring curiosity and optimism. With all these emotions in the holiday mix, it’s the perfect time of year to pay attention to, and nurture, our emotional intelligence.

What are emotions?

Let’s take a brief moment to define the word emotion. Perhaps you’ve thought to yourself, “Emotions are how we feel.” While this is certainly true, emotions are complex responses to situations or to ourselves that also affect how we think and behave, engaging both our bodies and our minds.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to understand and effectively use our different emotions. According to Gill Hasson, a teacher, career coach, and author of Emotional Intelligence Pocketbook (Wiley, 2017), “It’s not so much about controlling your emotions, which implies that you restrain, suppress, or deny them.” Rather, it’s about “managing your emotions, which involves being flexible with your thinking, behaviour, and responses, and being open to stay with feelings—both pleasant and unpleasant.”

We can learn and practise emotional intelligence skills at any age or stage of life. This is good news, given that emotional intelligence is linked to better mental and physical health, and overall life satisfaction.

Hasson adds, “The extent to which you’re able to understand and manage your own emotions influences your ability to understand and manage other people’s emotions”—just what we need during increased time with family, friends, and colleagues over the holiday season!

Enhancing emotional intelligence

Make all emotions your allies

We often think of emotions as either good or bad, such as happiness versus sadness. However, all emotions are valuable in providing information about what we’re experiencing and what we might need.

Name them to claim them

One study found that putting feelings into words made sadness, anger, and pain less intense. Labelling our emotions without judgment creates distance from them and reminds us that they’re temporary. Keep in mind that we can feel more than one emotion at once; for example, feeling happy as we engage in holiday activities while sad as we acknowledge loved ones who are no longer with us to celebrate.

Use your body

Paying attention to our bodies can offer important emotional information. For example, a racing heart can let us know we feel anxious. To foster calm, try “half smiling”—a technique introduced by Dr. Marsha Lineham, founder of dialectical behaviour therapy. To half smile, relax your face and shoulders and slightly elevate the corners of your mouth (think of a Mona Lisa smile, which may feel more natural than a big toothy grin).

Smiling throughout the day (first thing in the morning, when irritated, while meditating, or simply when you have a free moment) is thought to create changes in the brain that can help us feel calmer and happier. Research also suggests that smiles really are contagious and can make those around us cheerier as well!

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