When we think about what we need to do to live a long, healthy life, many of us probably think about the foods we’re eating, the supplements we’re taking and how much we exercise.
Sure, all of those are important. But a group of researchers who have analyzed long-term studies of how people age have come upon another key factor you need to incorporate into your life that often trumps the important things I just mentioned.
They point to what’s called emotional intelligence. What’s that? It’s the ability to accurately identify and deal with your own feelings while empathizing with and understanding the feelings of others.
To put it in more down-to-earth terms, it’s being in touch with your own feelings and sensitive to those of others.
Added to the mix: Emphasizing positive emotions over negative ones and embracing gratitude for the good things in your life; being optimistic and hopeful.
Here’s the proof that these can add years to your life…
Researcher George Vaillant headed up a study called the Grant Study that has been examining the longevity and health of a group of Harvard grads since the 1920s. According to his findings, if you want to live to a ripe old age you should “worry less about cholesterol and more about gratitude and forgiveness.”1 (Personally, I don’t put any stock in cholesterol as a measure of your health anyway. I put a lot of stock in forgiveness.)
Emotional Intelligence and the Aging Heart
Among the Harvard grads in the Grant Study, Dr. Vaillant points out that not smoking, having a stable marriage, exercising, keeping your weight down and not overdoing alcohol — along with emotional intelligence — all contribute to better aging. But, he adds, “What’s critical is allowing yourself to love others, and being able to take people in — as in, ‘I’ve got you under my skin.’”
He’s not the only one who thinks so. Other researchers have found that emotional intelligence contributes to factors that help you live longer – and scientists are able to measure these. For instance, work at the University of Arizona shows that emotional intelligence can help lead to better heart health as you age.
In their published research, these investigators define emotional intelligence as an awareness and grasp of your own emotions and the emotions of the others around you (which is pretty much the way I defined it at the start of this piece). They add that it entails being able to use that emotional awareness to improve both your life and the lives of your friends and relatives.
When it comes to your heart, they found that this kind of emotional awareness is linked to better function of what they call “cardiac vagal control.” This refers to the fact that the vagus nerve – which starts at the base of the brain and runs down through the body – regulates the working of the heart muscle more efficiently in folks who have higher emotional intelligence. The result is better control of your blood pressure, healthier variations in your pulse rate and fewer harmful cardiac reactions to stress.2
They conclude that being more insightful into your own emotions and the feelings of those around you usually goes hand in hand with a heart that’s more resilient and better able to recover from nerve-wracking situations.
Improving Emotional Intelligence
If you feel like you were just not born with the right mindset to be perceptive about your emotions, there is some research that suggests you can improve this part of your life.
Getting more vitamin B12 and folate may help.
A study in Australia found that older adults who had higher blood levels of B12 and folate enjoy a better and more hopeful mental outlook. They had more positive emotions and they responded more positively to life’s challenges.3
A more common (and, in my opinion, more likely) way is to use meditation to improve your emotional intelligence. A study at UCLA that was coordinated with other academic institutions found that transcendental meditation can boost perceptiveness about emotions while decreasing stress.4
In this research, after being tutored on how to meditate, the people in the study meditated for 20 minutes twice a day at home for four months. At the end of that time, the investigators found that their emotional intelligence (measured with a test called the Emotional Quotient Inventory) had improved significantly.
Why does meditation improve emotional intelligence? Nobody seems to know precisely, but some experts believe that its emphasis on judgment-free examination of your own feelings helps you be more objective about them and less likely to suppress them.5
In any case, improved emotional intelligence through meditation, according to the research, translates to improved aging. Besides that, using your emotional intelligence to help others feel better about themselves can make a difference. As Dr. Vaillant puts it, “Don’t try to think less of yourself, but try to think of yourself less.”
And that’s a sentiment I think most of us – young and old – would agree with.