The "Jen Ratio" – A More Nuanced View of Emotional Intelligence

Think of the jen ratio as a lens through which you might take stock of your attempt at leading a meaningful life.

—D. Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

Did you know that if you engage in five acts of kindness a week, you can elevate your personal well-being in lasting ways? You might think this is obvious. Try doing it while coping with the real world of chaos, much uncertainty for many, and news that is more bad than good. It’s a job to be kind and compassionate.

Think of how any organization would benefit from acts of kindness coursing through it hourly and daily. The rise of its positive emotion quotient would directly affect the quality and quantity of innovation!

“Jen” science, the study of positive emotion, has been hinted at for centuries by various philosophers and scientists such as Confucius, Socrates, Plato and Darwin. But “jen” has only come into its own recently in the shadow and dying embers of the industrial revolution.

As elite athletes have known for some time, we do not rise to our best through fear. The latter helps us survive under dire circumstances but it is not sustainable as a way of being.

The latest financial global crisis has demonstrated that Adam Smith’s “Homo economicus” has its limits. The pursuit of self-interest which does not focus on bringing out the good in others can lead to serious destruction. As Dacher Keltner, author of Born to be Good reiterates, self-interest, competition and vigilance have been built into our evolutionary makeup in order to survive, but these tendencies are only “half the story”. “Homo reciprocans” is a more apt description of our reciprocating nature and the importance of emotions when making economic or any other kind of decisions.

The good emotional side of humanity, called “jen” by Confucius, has always been with us. It is gaining ground in our consciousness globally as we become more connected and better informed. We were reminded of our good side by Henry Patch, the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches of the First World War, who died at age 111 on July 25, 2009. In his memoirs, written after he turned 100, he described the pact he and his fellow soldiers made: avoid killing the enemy if possible. Aim for the legs instead. Academics have picked up on this theme of our good emotional side for a number of decades.

In the 1990’s, Daniel Goleman and other researchers revived the rightful place of emotional intelligence as a driver of great leadership-the higher you go in an organization, the more important it is.

Not long after, Marcus Buckingham through his Gallup research of over 80,000 managers found that building on strengths of employees is a faster route to a positive climate and employee success than trying to change what isn’t there (transforming weaknesses).

Of late, even strategic planning has had a facelift with the introduction of the process called “Appreciative Inquiry” or “AI” for short. Like elite athlete practices, AI takes the high road by working on creating more of the exceptional performance of an organization through aspirational discovery, dreaming and design.

Since the late 90s, Martin Seligman, who became famous for his “learned helplessness” theory in the 1970s and 80s, started a growing worldwide movement called “positive psychology”. It builds on the works of famous humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Erich Fromm.

Recently, neuroscience is lending credibility to the value of “jen” (meaning “humane”), long ago advocated by Confucius. We are hard-wired to give to others and to act cooperatively. When we do so, the reward centers of our brains dense with dopamine receptors light up and hum with activity. Confucius recognized that cultivating “jen” developed character in self and others, led to the meaningful life and offset violence, materialism and needless hierarchy.

What is the “jen ratio”? The numerator refers to acts of kindness, compassion, awe, love, gratitude and even embarrassment. The denominator embodies the “bad” action when instead of establishing one’s own character by bringing the good of others to completion, a person is disdainful, critical, condescending and contemptuous (all the elements that make for “bad” relationships). It is well-documented that these actions do not lend a helping hand to anyone anywhere.

Researchers are now taking stock of the “jen ratio” of individuals, married couples, nations, cultures and different age groups. As Keltner remarks, “nations whose citizens bring out the good in others to completion thrive” as “trust (a key result of “jen”) facilitates economic exchange with fewer transaction costs, adversarial settlements, discrimination and economic inequality”.

Winners of a number of Nobel prizes in Economics concur. Cooperation beats cut-throat, winner-take-all competition in a complex societal system where trust ultimately must be a guiding principle. New research from the Center for Neuroeconomics further substantiates the value of trust to yield economic and well-being benefit.

Scandinavian and East Asian countries fare better in this regard than those in South America and Eastern Europe. Even poorer nations like India generate a higher trust level than wealthier nations like the United States. “Jen” trumps money!

The “jen ratio” is a simple measure and another tool for leader-managers. Acts of “jen” and “not jen” can be counted (see Buddhist “Pebbles in a Bowl story at With some deliberate practice, managers can generate higher “jen” ratios leading to higher performance all round — hard and soft — underpinned by the increasing momentum of the “flywheel of progress” through good acts.