Taking the development of emotional skills seriously is a challenge for society today

Feeling anxious? Phone a helpline. Struggling with the way your Dad left when you were 13? Find a therapist. Discovered that your new boyfriend is a cross-dressing cousin who has already fathered your mother's child? Call Jerry Springer.

We live in an age, it seems, in which the American exhortation to let it all hang out has supplanted - everywhere but in the Conservative party - the Stiff Upper Lip. Some people date the Era of Emotions from the mass, almost mandatory, public grieving following the death of Princess Diana. But the truth is that the trend towards greater openness is a long-term one.

Frank Furedi, one of the UK's more inflammatory social scientists, warns that we are turning the ordinary challenges of life, such as growing up, taking exams or doing a difficult job, into therapeutic concerns requiring expert intervention. In his latest polemic, Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Anxious Age, he argues that 'therapy culture promotes the idea that we are far too vulnerable to deal with the pressures of life. It is a culture that continually cultivates a sense of vulnerability, power- lessness and dependence.'

It's certainly true that counselling, therapy and general interest in issues psychological and emotional have all grown. Each month, more than a million counselling or therapy sessions take place, which means either that quite a lot of people are seeing a shrink or that a few people are seeing an awful lot of their shrink. There are now about 140,000 counsellors in the UK, and in France there are more therapists than priests. That Springer is the subject of the year's most important new opera sings volumes.

The new emotionalism has washed across the workplace, too, with many firms offering therapy services, a rise in concern over occupational stress and more credence being given to the importance of 'emotional literacy' in organisational as well as individual health.

Furedi is right to say that some of the labelling is unhelpful: 'generalised anxiety disorder (being worried), social anxiety disorder (being shy), social phobia (being really shy) or free-floating anxiety (not knowing what you are worried about)'. And 'stress' has become an almost entirely useless term, used as a port- manteau for everything from nervous breakdown to being a day late with a client pitch.

But there is more to the rise in emotional sensibility than everyone becoming either a blubbing basket-case or an automaton in denial. There is enormous value in becoming more emotionally skilled, or emotionally literate, not least because our emotions hugely influence our decisions or behaviour, in the workplace as elsewhere. The Enlightenment hope that our reason can overpower our emotions remains a forlorn one. For which we should be grateful: a world of coolly detached self-maximising robots appeals to few people outside the economics profession.

Many dysfunctional relationships at work are at root about emotional issues: fear of loss of face, need for reassurance or inner desire for control. Emotional literacy means understanding these subterranean forces, not in order to parade them around the boardroom, but to contain them appropriately. An emotionally literate workplace is not one where everyone is in tears or group hugs; it is one where people have sufficiently got their shit together so that they can get on with their jobs, rather than using the office stage to act out the dramas of their unresolved psyches.

In the same week that Furedi's rationalist rant hit the bookshelves, Antidote, the organization that promotes emotional literacy, set out its own stall. In the Emotional Literacy Handbook, evidence is marshalled to suggest that schools that take emotions seriously, and give children time to air concerns - for example, during a 'circle time' - show improved academic and behavioural results. The Department for Education and Skills is now rolling a pilot programme across 250 primary schools.

It is more helpful to think of 'emotional literacy' (a term coined by Rudolf Steiner in 1979) than 'emotional intelligence' (EI), which has a competitive, quantitative feel to it. Organisations need employees, particularly in some positions, who are good at relating to others. But the idea that firms can boost their competitive edge by raising or recruiting EI is to miss the point. Lots of organisations might do well with emotionally stupid people with other compensating qualities such as brain processing power, decisiveness and high tolerance of risk: currency traders, for example.

But firms need to recognise that emotions are likely to play a growing role in public life - and that this is not necessarily an unwelcome development.

In affluent nations, life satisfaction is much more strongly related to soft variables such as intimate relationships, intrinsic job satisfaction and companionship than to hard indicators like pay and position. Mori research suggests that the strongest predictor of job satisfaction is whether someone has a 'close friend' at work.

The challenge then is to take the development of emotional skills seriously, rather than descending into psychobabble or returning to a Stiff Upper Lip society. Everybody has emotional 'issues' that define them and shape their behaviour. Far from leading to a world in which these dominate, an emotionally literate society is one in which, by recognizing and understanding our demons, we can keep them in their place.

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