Is Attention the Secret to Emotional Intelligence?

By: Greater Good Science Center

many small ideas equal a big one illustrated with chalk drawn light bulbs on blackboard t20 Gg6VkE

New research suggests—is that your phone? Go ahead and reply. It’s OK, I’ll wait.

Back? I think I was saying something about—wait, you’re checking your email? Can’t you focus?

You’re not alone. It has become an axiom of modern life that we’re a people under attack, assailed by a barrage of technologies and near-constant communications. Amidst this wealth of data and information, one resource is in short supply: our ability to pay attention.

It is this dilemma that animates Daniel Goleman’s new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Goleman, the former New York Times science journalist turned best-selling author, is perhaps still best known for his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, which was followed by Social Intelligence more than a decade later. Like those earlier works, Focus synthesizes findings from years of research across the social, behavioral, and cognitive sciences—in this case, on the roots and importance of our attention skills.

But at first glance, the book’s subject matter might feel like a departure from Goleman’s previous work—until one actually starts to read it. It soon becomes clear that Focus in many ways picks up where those earlier books left off. According to Goleman, emotional intelligence requires self-awareness—awareness of our own minds and emotions—as well as empathy, both of which can be cultivated by honing our skills of attention.

“When I set out to write this book, I knew I was going to explore the explosion of new important research about attention,” says Goleman. “But what I didn’t realize was that it was going to lead me back to emotional intelligence.”

I recently spoke with Goleman about these connections between Emotional Intelligence and Focus, along the way exploring the contemporary challenges to focus and considering how—or whether—we’ll be able to meet them.

Goleman will elaborate on these ideas when he visits UC Berkeley for his talk hosted by the Greater Good Science Center next Thursday, November 21, at the university’s International House. (The event will be moderated by the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner.) What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Jason Marsh: In the book you talk about three different types of focus: inner, other, and outer. What is the most important thing for us to understand about inner focus?

Daniel Goleman: The fundamental thing to understand about inner focus is that we can be aware of our own awareness. There is such a thing as meta-awareness, meta-cognition, meta-emotion—the perspective we can take that allows us to monitor our inner world rather than just be swept away by it. That, in turn, gives us a point of leverage for handling that inner world better—without it, we’re lost.

For example, in Emotional Intelligence I looked at distressing emotions, which are generated by the brain’s amygdala and emotional threat. In order to manage the amygdala hijack, you have to be aware that it’s happening. Meta-awareness becomes the fulcrum from which you can handle emotions, handle your inner world, handle the thoughts which generate upsetting emotions or which help you, in a positive way, manage them for the better.

JM: Obviously there have been practices to help us try and develop those skills for millennia. But, in writing this book now, do you think there are challenges to building that type of meta-awareness that are particular to our time?

DG: Well, I think attentional skills are fundamentally under siege today. Never before in human history have there been so many seductive distractors in a person’s day, in a given hour, or in 10 minutes. There are pingings and pop-ups and all kinds of sensory impingements on our attention that want to pull us away from what we’re trying to focus on.

So I think that a book on focus is all the more timely, particularly in helping us understand why it matters that we’re not able to sustain focus for as long as used to be the case, either on what it is we’re supposed to be doing or on the person we’re with.

JM: I wonder if you could elaborate on that last part. You were just talking about inner focus but there is this other important focus, “other focus.” What did you find when you looked into the role of focus in our relationships?

DG: Well, being able to focus on the other person rather than the text you just received has become the new fundamental requirement for having a relationship with that person. If you go to a restaurant these days, for instance, you see people sitting together, at the same table, staring at their video screens, their phone, their iPad, or whatever it may be—and not talking to each other. That’s become the new norm. And what it means is that the connection is being damaged to some extent—threatened by the fact that we’re together, but we’re not together. We’re alone together.

And I think this is another reason to develop a meta-awareness about where our attention has gone. I think we need to make more effort and cultivate more strength to detach [our attention] from that thing that is so tempting over there, and bring it back to the person in front of us.

JM: As you delved into the science of attention, how did you feel about our potential actually to overcome these big technological distractions?

DG: Well, I’m terribly worried about us as a species—particularly the young people who are growing up with this norm as the baseline. I don’t know what the consequence will be, but I can’t imagine it will be wonderful. We all have the potential to get better resisting, but we’ve never as a whole had to do this—never had to summon up the effort it takes.

For example, meditation is, from a cognitive science point of view, the retraining of attention—a bulking up of the neural circuitry that allows you to detach from where your mind has wandered, bring it back to the point of focus, and keep it there. That is the basic repetition of the mind in any kind of meditation. And that’s also what builds up the willpower to resist the pull of electronics and stay with the human world.

We’ve always had the capacity for this, but it’s also always been something that only a small minority of people bothered to do. I’m actually now in favor of making it part of the curriculum so every kid learns it. But I wouldn’t call it meditation; I would say “attention training.” It’s actually a very mundane application of what we’re learning in the science of attention about how to pay better attention—how to focus with more strength.

JM: I want to get to that third type of focus. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what you mean by “outer focus.”

DG: The third kind of focus is systems focus. This is more elusive. We have dedicated [brain] circuitry for self-management, self-awareness. We have dedicated circuitry for empathy. The brain doesn’t have the equivalent of that dedicated circuitry for sensing, for instance, the ways in which humans systems of construction, energy, transportation, industry, and commerce are inexorably deteriorating global systems that support life. It’s too macro or too micro for sensory systems in the first place.

We literally don’t perceive global warming directly in the way we see a person’s wince or wink, and register that immediately. We don’t have an alarm system for that like the way we hear a growl—a growl alerts the amygdala and springs the stress hormones into action. But when it comes to global warming, actually, the brain shrugs. It’s something we have to learn about and learn to care about and learn to detect indirectly, so it’s a bigger stretch. We care about the present far more than the distant future, which is invisible—we don’t notice it.

JM: I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on the science behind that. Why do problems like global warming pose such a challenge, and to what extent do you think we have the mental machinery to deal with it?

DG: From a neuroscience point of view, I think the standard way this has been approached is exactly the wrong way to get people to care and act about global warming. Mainly they either threaten us with destruction or guilt trip us. That activates centers in the brain for negativity, for distressing emotions. And when we feel distressing emotions, the brain wants us to turn them off—either tune them out or do one little thing [to make us feel better]. And I think that’s one of the main reasons why the environmental movement has had such a poor record of getting the general public to do much about the environmental crisis.

There is a more clever way of getting people involved: Rather than looking at footprints, which is all the bad that we’re doing, look at handprints, which is the sum total of all the good things we do to lower our footprint.

This is the brainchild of Gregory Norris, who is at the Harvard School of Public Health. The handprint approach means that you get points for every time you ride your bike to work or walk instead of ride, when you recycle, when you print on both sides of the paper, when you don’t print at all. All of those things that help can be counted, and the idea is to grow your handprint rather than your footprint. That is a goal we can work toward in small baby steps that are manageable and that we can feel good about. And that motivates the parts of the brain which keep us working toward our goals.

JM: That also ties into another dimension of the book. In talking about focus, you’re not just talking about excellence or achievement; you’re talking about nothing less than “the key to a fulfilling life,” as you put it. It is focus that makes us attuned to the goodness that we experience every day, so that those experiences can contribute to a deeper sense of fulfillment or happiness.

DG: Exactly. Too often we think about doing something else or about being somewhere else rather than just enjoying where we are and what’s going on now. And coming back to the moment is a way of both enriching it and appreciating it, and that adds up to more positive moments in your life. Barbara Fredrickson talks about the ratio of positive to negative moments as being one metric of how fulfilling our day or hour or minute or life is. The higher the positive-to-negative ratio on the positive side, the more fulfillment we experience.

JM: Another encouraging thing you cover in the book is that focus is to a certain extent under our control—that it’s a skill we can build.

DG: That is good news, but we do have to work at building it. And for that reason I really advocate an intention-strengthening exercise as a kind of mental fitness that we practice daily, just as you might jog.

JM: And looking at the education landscape, do you think that embedding those types of skills into education is something within our grasp in, say, the next 10-20 years?

DG: In 1994, the year before my book Emotional Intelligence was published, I co-founded a group called the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which had as a mission bringing into schools programs in self-awareness and self-management and empathy and social skill—in other words, emotional literacy, now called social-emotional learning.

However, after writing focus, I think there’s a next step: to get more explicit about helping kids hone the attention skills that underlie emotional intelligence. For example, helping kids develop the ability to focus on their feelings, to focus on the task at hand, to strengthen that muscle of attention—that turns out to speed up their ability to develop all the other emotional intelligence skills. It makes them better learners and more alert and more calm—which is exactly how the teacher wants them to be.

For example, I was at a school in Spanish Harlem where the second graders have a daily session in watching their breath and counting it—keeps them very calm and very alert. That kind of exercise strengthens the circuitry for what’s called “cognitive control,” which is the ability to keep your mind on one thing and ignore distractions. It’s the crux of focus, and cognitive control in childhood turns out to predict life success in your 30s—things like how much you earn, whether you have savings, if you own a home, and also in many different measures of health. It predicts those things much better than either IQ or the wealth and circumstances of your family. Which is rather staggering. Also staggering is that we don’t teach it.

JM: All that said, in Focus you also touch on the value of letting your mind go adrift sometimes.

DG: There are many kinds of attention, and each has its value. When we think of focus, we tend to think of one point of concentration—‘I’m going to get this thing done if it kills me,’ just keep your eye on the target. Well, that’s useful in many respects—in school, at work. But not always. If you want to be creative, actually, that is a creativity killer.

To be in a creative state of mind, you want to let your mind wander. You do want to focus on the problem at first and gather all the information that might be pertinent as a kind of fertilizer for the creative process. But then the real action in creativity is in those times when you let go and don’t think of anything in particular. You have an enormous amount of “bottom up” circuits, as they’re called, which are beneath the curtain of awareness that processes information, and they will come up with a novel combination that can be useful—which is the definition of a creative insight—and present it to you in an off-moment, when you’re in the shower or going for a walk. So there’s a place for every kind of attention.

We share this article with permission. This article originally appeared on Greater Good Science Center’s blog.

Share with your community

Sign up for our Newsletter

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter on the latest industry updates, Rethink happenings, and resources galore.

Related Resources


As we enter the month of April, a time recognized for highlighting autism, I invite us...


It is well understood that embracing neurodiversity in the workplace fosters inclusion and innovation. Recognizing this,...


In June as we celebrate the LGBTQ community, we also need to be aware of people...