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The Benefits of Good Emotional Hygiene

06/29/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

The Dalai Lama uses the term "emotional hygiene" to urge us to get our disturbing emotions -- anger, frustration, anxiety -- under better control. Then, he says, adopt an attitude of concern for others, and act from that stance.

In the emotional intelligence world emotional hygiene falls under "self-management," and concern for others fits the "empathy" category.

I was explaining this to a group in Washington, D.C., who had asked me to talk about my new book A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for the World. But the first question I was asked after my talk surprised me.

"Can't emotional intelligence be used for selfish purposes?" a young woman wanted to know.

"It all depends on what you mean by 'emotional intelligence,'" was my answer.

In my model there are four parts: self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and social skills. When it comes to ethics, the critical action involves empathy. There are three kinds, and which ones you develop make all the difference.

Cognitive empathy lets you understand how the other person thinks -- their mental models for perceiving the world, the language they use. This lets you communicate effectively with them -- but it's also the kind of empathy that a con man or sociopath uses to manipulate others to their own selfish ends.

The second variety, emotional empathy, lets you feel with the other person. Social neuroscience tells us that the brain's interpersonal wiring lights up in our own circuitry what matches the activity in the other person's brain -- if she's in pain or distress, we feel this immediately in our own pathways for those feelings. This brain-to-brain link creates rapport and instant understanding.

Sociopaths, by the way, seem to have a deficiency in emotional empathy, failing to tune into another person's fear.

But the ethical dimension enters with the third kind, empathic concern. This means we care about the other person. It resides in the same circuits that activate when a parent loves a child. This mammalian caretaking circuitry underlies concern and compassion.

If we care, then we don't manipulate someone for selfish ends. Empathic concern snuffs out selfishness.

In the workplace this matters enormously. We want empathic concern in the people we work with - our boss, our colleagues, our direct reports. Not to mention our romantic partner and our children.

The Dalai Lama poses a challenge to us when it comes to empathic concern: what he calls "universal compassion." This means have concern for everyone, without exception. It's a very high bar.

How can we even begin to do this? Start with the love you feel now for those closest to you. Then gradually extend those feelings -- next to people you know, then to strangers. As you get better at this you can even include people you find difficult. Eventually extend love to everyone, everywhere.

Easy to say, but such lovingkindness takes effort. Researchers at Stanford University developed a program that, research shows, can enhance our sends of compassion. And at the University of Wisconsin a "kindness curriculum" for preschoolers made them less selfish.

Empathic concern, it turns out, is a bit like a muscle: The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.

A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World is available in print/ebook and audiobook.

Learn more about the Join a Force for Good initiative here or follow #RealGood on Twitter. Watch and share the Force for Good campaign video here.