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Where Positive Psychology and Emotional Intelligence Overlap

written by Nicholas Hall 10 November 2007

Nicholas Hall, MAPP '06, is the manager of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Behavioral Lab. He consults on worker satisfaction and engagement, and sits on the advisory board of Omnirisk Management Tools. His research work focuses on work satisfaction, character strengths, and positive psychology, and is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Articles by Nicholas are here.

Positive psychology and EI (“emotional intelligence”) have differing domains of research, though luckily I believe they can contribute to one another. For reference, here are the four branches of EI referenced in my earlier article on emotional intelligence.

  1. Perceiving emotion is the ability to…
    • Identify emotion in a person’s physical and psychological states
    • Identify emotion in other people
    • Express emotions accurately and to express needs related to them
    • Discriminate between accurate/honest and inaccurate/dishonest feelings
  2. Using emotions to facilitate thought is the ability to…
    • Redirect and prioritize thinking on the basis of associated feelings
    • Generate emotions to facilitate judgment and memory
    • Capitalize on mood changes to appreciate multiple points of view
    • Use emotional states to facilitate problem solving and creativity
  3. Understanding emotions is the ability to…
    • Understand the relationships among various emotions
    • Perceive the causes and consequences of emotions
    • Understand complex feelings, emotional blends, and contradictory states
    • Understand transitions among emotions
  4. Managing emotions is the ability to…
    • Be open to feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant
    • Monitor and reflect on emotions
    • Engage, prolong, or detach from an emotional state
    • Manage emotions in oneself
    • Manage emotions in others

Given these branches of EI, practitioners of positive psychology would be well-advised to use the EI model when working with coaching or therapy clients, business groups, or students. Surely being able to perceive what emotions you, your client, or the group you are working with are experiencing is fundamental. Being able to understand the differences between positive and negative emotions, and even between different positive emotions, helps the conversation you can have with your clients. Keeping the EI branches in mind and actively using them in your practice I believe will enhance the emotional education taking place, which in turn affects performance.

This is a perfect model for interventions. Those of us in positive psychology like to call interventions that increase or enhance positive emotions or strengths of character “positive interventions.” We sometimes classify interventions according to their ability to ameliorate the negative or accentuate the positive. I propose a different, or perhaps simply an “added” view: that interventions are targeted to a specific branch of emotional intelligence AS WELL AS to a specific positive emotion or character strength.

Are not most interventions intended as educational vehicles and not merely an unconscious “shot in the arm?” Then why not target them so? Or, at least be knowledgeable about the branch in which your intervention resides. It may be that your intervention is ineffective not because it is fundamentally flawed, but because the individuals or groups you are using it with need to learn how to understand their emotions, while your intervention merely helps them perceive what their emotions are. Perhaps our interventions, and particularly our emotional interventions, would be more effective if we kept the EI model next to us when we devise them.

I also believe that positive psychology can contribute to the EI field. Actually, it already has. The last two bullet points under “Using emotions to facilitate thought” – capitalize on mood changes to appreciate multiple points of view and use emotional states to facilitate problem solving and creativity – have been described by Barbara Fredrickson of UNC-Chapel Hill. The “broaden” part of her “broaden and build” theory describes precisely those two aspects of that branch. Negative emotions can’t get you into states that allow you to “appreciate multiple points of view” or “facilitate problem solving and creativity.” Only positive states can do that. And Fredrickson has studied and described that.


P. Ekman, M. McGowan

Under “Managing emotions,” branch 4, “engaging and prolonging your emotional state” is the same as our “savoring” in positive psychology. Therefore, the interventions that rely on savoring are perhaps those that focus the participant on managing their emotions.

Under “Understanding emotions,” branch 3, “perceive the causes and consequences of emotions” is what hope theory (Lopez et al., 2004) and goal setting does. It educates the goal-setter that hope can be caused by having pathways and agency.

Other researchers not directly associated with positive psychology have, of course, contributed to the underlying definitions of EI. Paul Ekman (2003), for example, has eloquently and exhaustively researched facial expressions that can help educate us on the “identify emotion in other people” bullet point under “Perceiving emotions.”

In the end, using psychological interventions either with ourselves or with clients can help create the ability to “Manage emotions in oneself” or “…in others,” under branch 4. That is the most mature use of our emotional intelligence, and a state we all aim to achieve.

Future Directions

I invite you to comment on this article with your thoughts about how some concepts, theories, or interventions in positive psychology line up under the EI framework. Nothing is clean and perfect, to be sure, but the more I think about this, the more convinced I become about the EI framework and its utility within positive psychology. Do you think so too?



Ekman, P., Friesen, W. (2003). Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions. Malor Books.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar-Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., Turner, J. L., & Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 388-404). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Salovey, P., Caruso, D., & Mayer, J. D. (2004) Emotional intelligence in practice. In In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 447-463). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Salovey, P., Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9, 185-211.

Photograph P. EKMAN/M. MCGOWAN From EXHIBIT REVIEWED: The Search for Universals in Human Emotion: Photographs from the New Guinea Expedition by Jascha Hoffman

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1 comment

George Anderson 12 November 2020 - 11:09 am

This is an excellent article that I will share every where I can. I am in the process of beginning a major contract in the Middle East to provide Emotional Intelligence training, assessments and coaching for physicians and leaders in 10 hospital. This is a major project that will likely impact a large number of physicians. Please Google me and consider connecting.


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