An Interview with Daniel Goleman
Illustration Credit: Roots by Alena Hennessy
“If someone has a certain virus, we need to use the appropriate hygiene,” the Dalai Lama tells author Daniel Goleman in their recent collaboration, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World. “Similarly, there’s a hygiene of emotions.” Just as physical hygiene helps us keep our bodies clean, emotional hygiene helps us manage our destructive emotions.
Goleman is the author of many books, including the influential best-seller Emotional Intelligence. He has a PhD in psychology from Harvard and for many years was a journalist reporting on brain and behavioral research for the New York Times. He spoke with S&H about how mindfulness and other emotional hygiene practices are the next step in emotional intelligence.
How has the world changed since you wrote Emotional Intelligence?
Back then when I would speak to businesses, people would say to me, “You can’t use the word ‘emotion’ in a business.” That’s what the world was like then. Today, of course, mindfulness has become very common in the business world and I see mindfulness as the next step in emotional intelligence.
It’s the missing piece. Mindfulness is really the training of attention, and attention is inextricably woven with the social and emotional circuitry of the brain. When I interviewed the Dalai Lama for A Force for Good, he talked a lot about what he calls “emotional hygiene.”
Emotional hygiene means using mindfulness or cognitive therapy—or whatever works for you—to get your more destructive and disturbing emotions under control. That way you don’t operate in the world out of anger, frustration, or revenge or any of those kinds of emotions. Instead you can be calm and clear and open, which is the best way to be relating to other people.
It turns out that from a neural point of view, the circuitry for relating to people in that way is the same circuitry you’re training when you practice attention with mindfulness or concentration. You develop what’s called “cognitive control,” which operates in the attentional domain—in terms of voluntarily allocating attention, like, “I’m going to keep doing my homework and not play this video game”—and also helps you manage your anger and your destructive emotions. It’s the same circuitry that helps you focus on what the teacher is saying. It’s also called “learning readiness.”
So there are many ways in which attention can be used to manage emotion. I think that’s a key lesson that children—and adults, too, by the way—would do well to master. It is kind of like a mental gym. You’re exercising your attention when you focus on one thing and your mind wanders off, and you notice it wandered. That’s the moment of mindfulness. You bring your attention back to that first thing. That strengthens the circuitry for cognitive control. It’s like the basic repetition in the mental gym, just like lifting a weight when you go to the physical gym.
So when you talk about emotional hygiene, the best techniques are those that build attention and focus?
Right. Because those are the same techniques that help you develop the capacity to better manage your disturbing emotions. It’s the circuitry that the prefrontal cortex uses to say “no” to emotional impulses.
What techniques for emotional hygiene do you recommend?
One is mindfulness, which helps you cultivate a point in your mental world where you’re not swept away by your thoughts and feelings. Instead you can note them, saying, “There’s that thought again. I’m having that feeling again.” That gives you a choice point and a degree of freedom that we ordinarily don’t have. You can decide whether or not you’re going to act on an impulse. Maturity has been defined as widening the gap between impulse and action. Mindfulness widens that gap.
There are other methods, too. I mentioned cognitive therapy earlier. The Dalai Lama, when he met Aaron Beck, who invented cognitive therapy, really clicked with him because he saw cognitive therapy as a Western version of something he’d been doing for years, which he calls “analytic meditation.” During analytic meditation he questions his own thoughts, his own assumptions, to analyze deeply how he perceives. In cognitive therapy, one of the great ways you free yourself from the hold of destructive mental habits is by stepping back from them and questioning them, rather than being swept away by them.
So those are two methods: therapy and meditation. But the Dalai Lama says it doesn’t matter which you use, just so it works for you.
Do you have a personal practice that you do?
I have been a meditator since I was in college, on and off. I’m trying to be much more one now. I just started writing a book with Richard Davidson, who’s a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who has been studying Olympic-level meditators, beginning meditators, kids meditating. He’s got the whole range. And one of the take-homes I got was that, as with any other skill in any domain, the more you practice, the greater the benefits. So I’ve been trying to practice more.
I started out with Transcendental Meditation, as so many people do, then I went to mindfulness or insight meditation, and now I’m working with some Tibetan teachers on a kind of Tibetan version of insight meditation.
Can bodily practices also help us regulate emotions?
My own feeling is that people should try different methods and see what helps them uniquely, because it’s not one size fits all. Some people find mindfulness very difficult. Some people find yoga very difficult. I once did some research with Jon Kabat-Zinn on this, because Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), his method, includes both mindfulness and yoga. We were trying to find out what would help people calm themselves most effectively, and a very interesting finding was that people who experience anxiety cognitively—they worry too much, wake up in the middle of the night, can’t stop thinking about this or that—are calmed most effectively by a body-based approach, not a mental approach.
So, for people like that, mindfulness—where you’re using your mind to calm your mind—might be the wrong thing to do. It might be better to try something that is physically relaxing, a body-based approach. So I think the bottom line is to try several different things until you find something that really works for you.
When anxiety appears in a bodily way, does that mean that the anxiety is worse?
There are different levels of anxiety. There’s chronic anxiety. There’s what I call emotional hijacks, which is when you panic just before you’re going to give a speech. You can monitor these either mentally or physically. One of the things that it does is rivet attention. So you start obsessing or just thinking about that thing that’s upsetting you. Another thing it does is shuffle memory so that all the other times you’ve felt upset come to mind more easily than times you’ve handled it well.
Another thing that happens—because your body is creating lots of adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones—is that you can sweat. You can have all of the physiological signs of anxiety. So, intense anxiety is both cognitive and physiological. But, in general, people tend to classify themselves as, apart from those intense moments, experiencing anxiety either mentally or physically. But actually it’s both when it becomes intense.
I’ve always been interested in meditation as a tool to help me see into the true nature of reality, to experience enlightenment, whatever that is. Do you think that the way we’re talking about meditation right now, in terms of attention and emotional regulation, is connected to those lofty notions?
I think that there’s a spectrum that runs from the traditional methods—as practiced for centuries in Asia—to the kind of mindfulness that’s practiced in organizations, businesses, and so on in America today. There’s a range of benefits that the mindfulness people and companies are finding. There are definite emotional and health benefits, there’s no question about that. But if you’re talking about a radical transformation and enlightenment, mindfulness as practiced in companies is not going to get you there. The paths that seem to work are the ones that have been developed over centuries in Asian traditions.
Sometimes I worry that some of the goals of mindfulness, as practiced in companies, might get in the way of the pursuit of enlightenment.
I don’t really know what enlightenment is, but according to the classic texts it looks as though it’s taking those changes you see right at the beginning of mindfulness practice—becoming calmer, happier, more open to other people—and increasing those qualities to the nth power and then stabilizing them, so you don’t vacillate and are in that place all the time. I think something like that is an operational definition of enlightenment.
In A Force for Good, you give us glimpses of what enlightenment might look like in the corporate world. You show us companies that bring together profits and doing good work in the world. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
The basic idea is that companies can do good while they do well financially. They can do more than just chase money. There are several models for this. One model is the B corporation, which is a legal term for a company that has social or environmental goals in its founding charter, as well as financial ones. Patagonia is an example of this. Greyston Bakery is another: a bakery in an impoverished area of the Bronx. They employ homeless parents and ex-cons and people who couldn’t get jobs elsewhere and teach them how to bake. Then they got a very good contract to provide brownies for Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie flavor. Their slogan is “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people.”
Another model is called the triple bottom line, where environmental and social issues matter, in addition to financial goals. There are many ways of doing it, but it expands the mandate of the business in a compassionate direction. The Dalai Lama really likes this idea, by the way, because he sees the growing gap between rich and poor as a moral crime. We need to rethink our economic models and lessen that gap, rather than continue widening it.
What’s the relationship between the personal emotional hygiene practices we were discussing earlier and working toward social justice goals, such as lessening the gap between rich and poor?
The Dalai Lama lays it out this way: First start with yourself, with emotional hygiene. Get your destructive emotions under control. Act from your positive side, so that you adopt a moral rudder of compassion, genuine concern for other people, and then you act. The business models we’ve been talking about are one expression of this kind of compassion. The Dalai Lama’s compassion in action is pretty tough minded. He says, “Let’s bring transparency and accountability to the public sphere and clean up dirty business, dirty politics, and dirty religion.”
Emotional hygiene is the first step in a journey toward acting compassionately.
Does the Dalai Lama advocate for a bottom-up approach to social change?
He sees each of us as having a role, a way we can act, given whatever the possibilities are in our own lives. Even if we won’t see the fruit of our action, we each can do something to make the world a better place. He takes a very long view, by the way—he thinks in terms of centuries. He says, “By the end of the 21st century, things could be much, much better. But we all need to act now in order to begin that process.”
Yes, talk to me about the rate of how things change. From my perspective, it seems like really bad things can happen very quickly—in a moment of hatred or anger—and that good change takes a really long time.
When you’re talking about changing social policy or deeply ingrained attitudes, it takes generations. And over generations, actually, things have been changing for the better. We’re still in the midst of changing attitudes from slaveholders who dismissed slaves as non-people to a world where most people don’t buy into that at all.
The other thing is that we shouldn’t look to the news to get a good sense of the state of the world because the news is written for the reptilian brain, the part of the brain that wants to be vigilant for danger. We collect every disaster around the globe and they are presented to us in the daily newsfeed. What it ignores totally is all of the acts of decency and kindness and civility around the world, which is not “news.” So if you put the bad stuff on one side of the scale and the good stuff on the other—like a scale of justice—the good would enormously outweigh the bad. It’s just that in our perception it may not seem that way.
A Simple Breathing Exercise for Emotional Hygiene
One of the universally effective meditations is a simple meditation on your breath. It’s very calming, because the breath is something neutral and it’s always there. It is also a metric for how calm you are. If your breathing is very fast, that’s a sign you’re anxious. But, as you get more relaxed, it becomes slower and slower. If you get really good and relaxed, you can pay attention to the space between the breaths, because they’re not coming that often.
Sit upright and bring your attention to your breath. Don’t try to control your breath, just let it be natural and easy, but be aware of your breath. Watch the full inhalation, the full exhalation.
See if you can feel it coming and going through your nostrils, or feel the rise and fall of your belly. Get some way of staying with your breath and be aware of the full in-breath, the full out-breath, and then start again on the next one. And if something distracts you—some thought takes you away, or a sound takes you away—the moment you notice you’ve been distracted, simply start with the next breath. Be fully aware of the breath; just keep your attention anchored there.
Breathing in, breathing out. And begin again, breathing in, breathing out.
You can do this for 10 to 20 minutes. The longer you do it, the more relaxed your body becomes. This exercise is a member of what we call the concentration family of meditation. It’s very often used as the beginning of mindfulness: After you get some strength in concentration, you open your awareness to whatever is happening—but you don’t want to do that right away, because it can be overwhelming. Concentration, you could say, is the first step in mindfulness.
Sam Mowe is the Communications Manager at the Garrison Institute in New York, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring the intersection of contemplation and social action. Daniel Goleman will be coleading a retreat at the Garrison Institute in May 2016.