Emotional Intelligence and K-dramas: Dimensions for hapiness

When I published «The Korean Letter,» a romance novel about the discovery of k-dramas and how they affect our emotions, I added the subtitle «The invisible emotion» in homage to New York Times journalist and Emotional Intelligence «guru» Daniel Goleman.

Before the concept of «Emotional Intelligence» became popular in the 1990s, there was only «Cognitive Intelligence» so being successful was equivalent to having a high IQ.   In schools and also in companies, as a personnel selection tool, different psycho-technical tests were used to measure the ability to perform logical and mathematical operations of each individual. The world was divided between people more or less apt to achieve success or not, establishing the average intelligence at 90/100; so that below 90 were people with borderline intelligence or intellectual disability and above 120 the intelligent ones.

Then came Goleman with a lot of theories of psychiatrists, neurologists and psychologists claiming that it was useless to have a brilliant brain if people were not able to read their own and others’ emotions and did not know how to manage them.  In conclusion, what Goleman claims is that the lack of the ability to relate to others will make impossible to achieve happiness. Even more, Goleman stands for Emotional Intelligence is responsible for the 80% of success while the remaining 20% corresponds to the subjects we learn in books. 

And if this is so, where does one learn to train “Emotional Intelligence”?

The educational systems have not given an answer to this challenge and it seems that the Internet is not proving to be the best vehicle to develop the incredible neuronal plasticity of our rich emotional world, but on the contrary, it tends to promote pathologies and addictions by relying on emotional deficiencies instead of filling them.

However, and I am going to allow myself an enormous license, I would dare to say that if Daniel Goleman watched Korean series he would affirm that the K-DRAMAS are a perfect tool to work on the FOUR DIMENSIONS OF EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE.   Since I don’t dare to go that far, I will recommend some K-dramas that I think are illustrative of these dimensions;

1. Emotional self-awareness

«It is our ability to understand what we feel.  It is kind of a personal compass that connects us with our values and allows us to guide ourselves along the right path.»

For this purpose, I loved the k-drama “ITAEWON CLASS”, a story of ambition and revenge where apparently all the characters seek business triumph until they understand that their success depends on their real motivations and that to achieve it, they must surround themselves with the people they love.

On a much more sentimental level «SOMETHING IN THE RAIN» is a beautiful story of empowerment of a woman who decides to stop being abused when she discovers in the love of a younger man the self-esteem she has always lacked.

2. Self-motivation

«It is the ability to orient ourselves towards our goals.  Our ability to overcome setbacks and focus all our personal resources on a goal.»

This dimension is frequent in k-dramas, whether Confucian, Buddhist or Christian themed, but without this religious inspiration, there is a masterful k-drama, worthy of screening in business schools, called START-UP, set in a kind of «business shuttle».

Much more romantic, I recommend «ROMANCE IS A BONUS BOOK», which exemplifies this dimension of self-motivation through a woman re-entering the publishing world after a divorce and having sacrificed the best years of her professional career to raise her daughter.  Starting over from scratch, both in the work and personal worlds, will be no easy task.

3. Empathy

It can be defined as the understanding of the emotional reality of others without the need for words. Deciphering non-verbal language, silences, looks, gestures, putting ourselves in the other person’s place and discovering what he or she is going through is what we could call “empathy”.

To understand empathy I would recommend watching «CHOCOLATE», the k-drama to which I dedicated my first novel, because it is a succession of empathy stories written and developed in a way intertwined with the main plot.  This k-drama, set in a hospital for terminally ill people, depicts two characters destined to meet when they have lost their physical capacities for their jobs as surgeon and chef respectively and both are psychologically exhausted.  With each chapter, they reach a higher level of empathy for each other until they manage to recognize themselves, love each other and reach something resembling happiness.

In addition, Asian cinematography being very restrained in words can help us to work our empathy looking at the actors performance.  Films makers love those close-ups taking care to convey in detail that non-verbal language  composed of gestures, looks, silences… which allows Westerners, who tend to verbalize emotions, to train our brains to discover emotional nuances in a way we are not visually accustomed to. 

Other k-dramas that work wonderfully on empathy are «NAVILLERA» with that delightful story of an old man with dementia who wants to learn classical dance and «CRASH LANDING ON YOU» which I think is a hilarious way to make us understand how different and basically so similar ( from an emotional perspective) are the two Koreas separated by geopolitical issues.

There is also an «empathy» with a genuinely Asian dimension, which escapes the understanding of a Westerner educated in the Christian belief of the eternal life of the soul and not of its reincarnation.  This kind of empathy is what we can see in the k-dramas in which the characters live a different life occupying the body of another people as in «OH MY MY GHOST», «ABYSS» and «MYSTIC POP-UP BAR».   In some American and European films we have seen the resource of turning a child into an adult, a father swapping with his son, a man into a woman and vice versa… but it is always the same individual preserving his/her emotional consciousness, so this other exercise of experiencing KARMA in television fiction seems to me most empathetic way to learn about Emotional Intelligence.

Finally, I find very interesting the confrontation between «Emotional Intelligence» versus «Artificial Intelligence» as in «HOLO LOVE» which I found fascinating because of the hologram was quite more empathic than its creator, a surly computer engineer.  I would also like to mention «LOVE ALARM» where a mobile app supposedly guessed the capacity for feeling loving empathy of human beings. 

4. Social skills.

«It is our ability to communicate effectively and assertively, to manage conflicts and differences.»

According to Goleman, all four dimensions must be present at the same time. So it is not enough to be competent in one or some of them.  To BE EMOTIONALLY INTELLIGENT we are required to be intelligent in ALL areas. What if the brain has a neurological damage that prevents any dimension from working? Can happiness be achieved when one has a mental disability or behavioral disorder in any area or in all of them?

In this regard, Korean films and series admire me for the sensitivity and frequency with which they address the issue of mental disability in an entertaining and everyday format such as k-dramas.

In many series, novelizing and softening some aspects, Asperger’s syndrome and autism disorders in general are dealt with, as in «MOVING TO HEAVEN» and more crudely in «IT’S OK NOT TO BE OK».

The best k-drama I have seen about mental health is «IT’S OK, THAT’S LOVE» which confronts the love between a traumatized psychiatrist who does not believe in love and a «play-boy» who will become, first her healer to dramatically discover, later, that he suffers from severe schizophrenia.

There are many k-dramas and many ways to interpret and enjoy them. I only hope that you have found interesting to identify these dimensions related to Emotional Intelligence.   I wish that,  through these Korean series, which may seem culturally distant to us because of the language and society in which they are developed, we can discover the emotional proximity of human beings and realize  that the more distant manifestations can be surprisingly closer;  a very valuable help to expand the limits of our Emotional Intelligence,  a way to better express our feelings, control our behavior, be more assertive, improve our social skills, self-motivate ourselves and ultimately, be happier and more successful in life. 

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