The Feelings Master

Three weeks into my first semester

at Yale College, I am sitting across from the award-winning Psychology professor Marc Brackett. He is casually asking me to explain the difference between jealousy and envy. I can only think — is there one?

The ability to decipher the difference between these two feelings is an example of Emotional Intelligence (EI), a concept developed in the 1990s by Yale Provost Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer of the University of New Hampshire. Their “ability model” separates EI into 4 key components: identifying, using, understanding, and managing

emotions. Other psychologists have since developed new (if similar) models of emotional intelligence. Brackett, who heads the EI Unit at Yale’s Health, Emotion, and Behavior Laboratory, is working to gauge the effectiveness of teaching EI to children in middle school. His unit trains teachers to instruct students in “recognition, understanding,

labeling, expression, and regulating

emotions” (RULER). Brackett’s current study, his largest yet, extends to 66 schools across the country.

The question Brackett asked me is an example of one that could appear on the MSCEIT (Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test), developed to determine EI in each of the key categories. I took the MSCEIT (pronounced mesquite), hoping to discover the hidden talent for perceiving emotions

that has come to feature prominently on primetime television shows such as “Lie to Me” and “The Mentalist.” This section of the test involved looking at photographs of faces and marking the extent to which I could discern various emotions (sadness, happiness, anger, disgust, etc.). It turned out to be my weakest section. Brackett politely suggested that, in traditional Yale fashion, “it’s possible you over-analyze.”

Brackett was first exposed to the concept of EI as a teenager. His uncle, a middle school teacher, was frustrated by his students’

lack of motivation and interest. He began enhancing the curriculum by connecting

the material he was teaching to his students’ real-world experiences. Though he continued to teach the same literary material, he worked to help his students understand the characters on an emotional level while at the same time articulating their own emotional


Brackett’s uncle had picked up on one of the surprising effects of his nephew’s Emotional Literacy training: learning about emotions actually enhances academic performance.

As Brackett phrased it, “if you’re not able to regulate your emotions, how will you pay attention during a test?” Though it’s preliminary, Brackett’s research suggests academic performance can be increased by as much as 10% through EI lessons. But EI is not just a narrow addition to school curricula

intended to improve reading and math performance; it is also a method for teaching useful life skills. It is the answer to the frustrated

calculus student’s cries: “Will I ever need to know this?”

Brackett’s Emotional Literacy training has the potential to overhaul the teaching environment. “What we find is that for student engagement, what matters most is not quality of instruction but the quality

of the emotional climate.” One of the tools Brackett provides his teachers to assess classroom climate is a mood meter. The mood meter visually depicts various states in which teachers can work with their students. Brackett instructs teachers how to bring their students from one quadrant to another to focus on different types of activities. “What quadrant do teachers want their students to be in when they’re writing a reflective essay vs. brainstorming ideas for an upcoming paper? If you’re doing really morose poetry, you might want to be in the blue (low feeling and low energy).”

In the broadest sense, learning about one’s own emotions is an answer to the lamentations of New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has written about the dearth of instruction related to important life decisions — especially those most relevant

to our happiness. “The most important decision any of us make is who we marry. Yet there are no courses on how to choose a spouse… The most important talent any person can possess is the ability to make and keep friends. And yet here too there is no curriculum for this. The most important skill a person can possess is the ability to control one’s impulses. Here too, we’re pretty much on our own.”

If my response to Brackett’s original question

is an indicator, the need for emotional literacy training in schools is real and pressing.

As for the difference between jealousy and envy — the correct answer was roughly the opposite of my guess: “Jealousy is about fearing the loss of something; it’s much more relationship driven. Envy is wanting something

you don’t have. Jealousy would lead to more destructive behavior than envy because it’s much more personal.”