Are mindfulness and emotional intelligence the next frontiers in evolution of humankind and society?

On emotional intelligence, the science of mindfulness, and the many ways it can change the world – from one spiritual sceptic to another.

Editor's Note: This story is part of a series on mindfulness, its concepts and variations, in partnership with the 2nd Mindfulness India Summit, taking place on 30-31 October 2019. You can find the full list of stories under the series here

It has taken humanity 2,000 years (and counting) to see emotional intelligence as a worthwhile human value. We've not seen the day yet when it's made a necessary part of schooling, the workplace, and life in general. For most of us, whatever little emotional quotient (EQ) we've managed to gather along the way serves us well. But the science and understanding of mindfulness and emotional intelligence is only now expanding, and fast.

If being an emotionally intelligent person would give you an edge in almost every aspect of your life, would you be silly not to explore it? What’s the bare minimum amount of learning that’ll get me to a mindful place, and help me sustain and practice it for years to come?

Parallels between EQ and Intelligence Quotient (IQ) are fairly new. In 1995, a psychologist and science journalist turned author Daniel Goleman published the first resource for the general public on the power of emotional intelligence in his book 'Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ'. He's become one of the leading experts on the subject, and an advocate for expanding the usage of EQ in the workplace and society.

Mindfulness is also a new concept in science. A dozen or so early studies show a strong link between people with high EQ and their productivity at work. There’s also evidence that mindfulness can help spot and deal with some of life’s toughest breaks – failure, rejection, disagreements, stress and heartbreak.

Before the next time you land yourself in what can be described as a cl*sterf*ck and nothing less dramatic, remember, there’s someone out there whose facing failure, rejection, disagreements, stress and heartbreak. But this person is mindful, knows how to think about the problem at hand, how to feel about it, and respect the interests of everyone involved. This is someone with high emotional intelligence, who isn’t swayed by everything the world throws at them – be it good or bad.

Did we evolved to be emotionally intelligent and mindful?

Meet Lucy. Lucy was your (great)^24 grandmother.

Put yourself in her shoes for a quick minute. How do you think she survived in the world all those tens of thousands of years ago? The very same toolkit we use to survive in the world today to deal with stress, joy, pain and surprise, of course. In 32,00,000 years, the planet and life on it evolved timed and time again. But our basal responses to fight-or-flight are pretty much same old, same old.

In our bodies, the stress response system is the autonomous nervous system – specifically, a neuronal circuit called the HPA Axis. It’s designed to respond when in emergencies.

Back in the wild, Lucy didn’t have big claws or big teeth. She may have had a fierce personality but her ability to decide what worked (and what didn’t) for situations that may arise in the future decided her survival. Clearly, she survived, at least well into her reproductive years because we all share her DNA – her biological, genetic memory.

Every time Lucy saw a beige shape behind a bush, she could respond in one of two ways.

“It’s a lion! Run!”

That'd be a Type-1 response. Back in her day, Lucy was better off making Type-1 errors for her survival. If she saw of the beige shape behind the bushes and thought it was a rock instead of a lion – and it was, in fact, a lion, that'd be a very unfortunate Type-2 error (and the end of her genetic line!).

In 2019, all those millennia later, we’ve learned that there is something to be said about a “well-adjusted” brain. What would happen to the brain of the rabbit if it had our devices for reasoning, processing, prediction, etc? It would be a delight if it meant the White Rabbit (along with everything else that's memorable about Alice in Wonderland) is real. But more likely, that'd be one overwhelmed little rabbit – at least initially. This is likely what humans today find themselves caught up in, according to Harvard behavioural scientist Ronald Seigel.

We’ve inherited a fight-or-flight response that we view as an uncontrollable, biological impulse. We also associate our thinking and reasoning – another gift from nature, with our emotions. What we now live with as a result are eczema, stress, hair loss, sexual dysfunction, addiction and the list goes on.

From all the fuss about social rank back in humankind’s happy hominid days, we’ve evolved to be equally anal about our social esteem. How do I compare with the person across the table? How does this celebrity compare to the other in their appearance, their choice of films, their fashion choices? With every like, every retweet, social media is, on a global scale, leading us down a dark path.

We evolved, and we’ve survived to see 2019. But so many of our natural instincts that were once useful to us are doing more harm than good today. Much of our experience in life isn’t just “of the heart” or “of the mind”, but a dynamic combination of both.

Cutest puppy in the world. Image: Pinterest/MrWallpaper

Cutest puppy in the world. Image: Pinterest/MrWallpaper

Give the picture above a good, hard look.

The cute puppers likely gave you a sense of “loving acceptance”. Few (or hopefully, none of us) would probably pick up a stick and give the puppy a beating. Instead, cute puppies often totter around the streets being showered with loving acceptance from all kinds of people… who make a sound characteristic of loving acceptance, which goes something like this: awwwwwwww!

Let's say the puppy poops or pees somewhere inappropriate. While it may anger you, you’d still probably not pick up that stick. You’d instead quickly reason with yourself that the puppy is young, it’ll learn and that it doesn’t know any better. There’s a lot of perks to owning an attitude of accepting situations in life lovingly.

Neither our thoughts nor our memories of life are factual. Both are coloured to varying degrees by our emotions. Our bad moods last longer than a fleeting minute or two because our thoughts are pretty negative at the time, and our outlook for the future seems equally dire. It’s the same for positivity and positive thoughts. Ultimately, our attitudes decide when we step out of a negative or positive bubble.

In the workplace, something terrible often happens not when things are carefully thought and planned, but when someone is either hurt, humiliated or emotionally uncomfortable in some other way. Much of the emotional trappings that continue to affect us are the same things that have been plaguing humanity for eons. Problems with cooperation, war and love aren’t all that different from back when. But in the modern world, we have new ones.

Social media addiction is gripping us in ways we don't realise, and affects the bulk of today's digital natives.

Social media addiction is gripping us in ways we don't realise and affects the bulk of today's digital natives.

One of them is the emotional stimulation we get from social media, where your social esteem is shaped by a lot of carefully thought-out feedback loops. A like will make you feel good. 50 likes make you feel even better. That millisecond of tension before opening an important email, that loop of checking our notifications on our go-to social media apps. 81 percent of employees in a large study forgot to breathe when they're reading their emails (8 in 10 people in every workplace in the world!) in an acknowledged, medically-recognised condition called email apnea.

The anticipation and encouragement are part of a hormone hack into the dopamine network of the brain, teasing our natural craving for small self-esteem boosts through the day.

Have we no time for mental health? 

In the meanwhile, mindfulness experts and psychologists around the world are tackling social media addiction with mindfulness and EQ tools. Acceptance from the society on issues affecting the mind, of addiction and the importance of sound mental health is going to decide whether the practice of mindfulness, which is currently a human experiment in self-improvement, grows and reaches everyone that needs it.

There's still a long journey ahead for mental health in India, where the industry is simply too young and too small to matter in any tangible way. India's mental health budget was less than 1 percent of its total health budget for 2017. The cost of seeing a therapist or counselor weekly is undeniably high, but the more pressing challenge is the stigma and taboo that accompanies discussions on mental health.

For reasons that are irrational and unfair, a mental health illness is treated on part with a mental disability by the large chunk of Indian society – with the same disdain and hopelessness. They're viewed as personal failings and not as a part and parcel of life – like bankruptcy in business. There are also very few new faces – the influential kind – that come around to discussing mental health on public forums. Many families in India are seeing the first generation of its members acknowledging a mental health problem and seeking help. For a country of 123 crore citizens, with some 80 crore (65 percent) below the age of 35, the want of understanding, accepting and treating mental health issues is a tragedy.

Illustration courtesy Satwik Gade

Illustration courtesy Satwik Gade

It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s okay to also seek help. On the preventive side, be positive and move on ahead when something bad happens. “When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don't go away; instead, they own us, they define us,” Brene Brown.

That said, there’s no doubt some progress – slow progress but some, stemming from the corporate sector. New companies are building mindful workplaces, and others are adapting to workplaces where employees are paid attention to, are less conflicted, and more capable to support the company and each other as and when needed.

But the journey to discovering mindfulness in any aspect of your life starts with something small, and something that benefits you. Maybe observe the differences in how you react the next time you hear surprising news vs how you respond to it. Even something as virtuous as compassion starts with yourself.

Some resources to get you started on a mindful journey:

The Free Mindfulness Project

Mindfulness, Awareness and Compassion & forms of meditation: What is good for what?

University of Chicago–Sand Diego Mindfulness Resources

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Exercises and Courses

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