A book called Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a whole year. Even though it falls into the category of self-help books, a genre that I view with the deepest suspicion, it becomes interesting, simply because of its popularity. A best selling book, like a hit movie or chart-topping song, is a clue to what’s going on in our culture. It tells us something about ourselves.

What’s going on in our culture, according to Dr. Goleman, is that we don’t handle emotions intelligently. His argument goes like this. Regular intelligence, as measured by IQ tests and the acquisition of diplomas, degrees and certificates, is not the only quality that makes a person happy and successful. There is a different way of being smart, which he calls “emotional intelligence,” and which includes qualities like self-awareness, self-control, persistence, and empathy.

Most people over the age of three know this, although we didn’t give it a fancy name before; it was simply called common sense. Emotional intelligence is our basic social survival mechanism, the ability to manage our feelings and get along with others. We’ve all met intellectually brilliant individuals who have the charm and social skills of a rattlesnake. And we read the newspapers and drive on the highways every day, so we know that there are an awful lot of people out there who don’t think before they act, and probably never think at all.

Dr. Goleman argues that we don’t pay enough attention to this vital skill he calls emotional intelligence, and he’s absolutely right. We have a lot of dangerous emotions left over from more primitive stages of evolution: fear, anger, lust, shopping behavior, the desire to write bad poetry, and so on. These are irrational impulses that bypass the thinking process, and invariably cause trouble.

The doctor proposes that emotions should come more thoroughly under the control of the rational mind. That is, we should think about what we feel. I couldn’t agree more. In fact I would go a step further. Reason can and should always take command. Being carried away by emotion is nothing to be proud of, any more than catching a virus. Any child or chimpanzee can be carried away by emotion. Grownups should try a little harder. That’s my position. Or so I thought.

Whoever decides these things arranged a test of my theory: in a word, kittens.

We had lost our beloved old cat Bertram several months before, and everyone asked: “Are you getting another cat?” and we said “Yes, but not yet.” All summer long we were offered kittens. And of course we were always tempted, because it’s hard to live without at least one cat. But rational brain always said no, it’s not the right time, we have too many other things to do, and so on.

One day, as I was toiling over my weekly essay, my wife came into the room and said: “There are kittens on the deck.” I didn’t believe it, but there they were: a mother cat and three kittens, presumably dumped in the woods nearby by somebody with an emotional intelligence quotient of zero.

Of course it still wasn’t the right time to take on four half-wild cats who would have to be caught, tamed, and neutered. When that painful day comes, I would like the person who abandoned them to be first in line at the vet’s office. The intelligent, rational brain said: absolutely no kittens.

But these kittens were a test. I don’t know what their IQ was, but their emotional intelligence was up in the genius range. They knew just how to get our attention – the cute poses, the rolling on their backs with their paws in the air, the pathetic stare that said: “Surely it must be time to eat?”

There were two PhDs in the house, but it was clear that intellect was no defense against this emotional blitzkrieg. Of course we recognized the games kittens play to get a good home, just as human beings play similar games to get a good partner, then go back to behaving normally right after the wedding. We knew all this, and it didn’t help at all.

When kittens appear at your back door there are two rational choices: to ignore them until they go away, or to call the animal control people. There is one profoundly irrational choice, verging on insanity: to keep them. We kept them. I have the feeling that, on that day, we took an important test of our emotional intelligence, and failed.

Copyright: David Bouchier