The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Sandy flings down her pom-poms: “You’re a fake and a phony and I wish I’d never laid eyes on you!” Danny is crestfallen—but Rizzo, who has orchestrated the stand-off, is thrilled. Her eyes sparkle, her face lights up. The bonfire scene in Grease contains one of the best smiles in cinematic history: gleeful, contemptuous and entirely self-satisfied. Rizzo has had her revenge.

We smile for all sorts of reasons: delight, mirth, incredulity. There are wry smiles. And grins like the Cheshire Cat’s. But one smile has a particularly intriguing history: the smile of satisfaction. It can be full of TRIUMPH or CONTENTMENT, irritatingly smug or ironic and wry (the smile that is part of the look the Italians call il sorriso di chi la sa lunga, the expression of someone who knows the whole story). But whichever form these satisfied grins take, they seem to have enjoyed a moment in the sun in eighteenth-century France, when Parisians learned—briefly—how to smile.

The origins of this “smile revolution” can be traced back to a group of natural philosophers active in the mid-century. They believed themselves to be living in an “Age of Lights,” liberated from the gloom and oppressiveness of Church-sponsored knowledge. These philosophers presented themselves as free, inquiring and happy. And for them, a smile was the ideal emotional attitude with which to greet the world. “One must laugh at everything,” said Voltaire. In fact, the statue of him that sits in the foyer of the Comédie Française has a slightly mischievous expression (though he himself thought it the grin of a “maimed monkey”). This is not a man plagued by desire or tormented by doubt, but one curious and quietly confident. It betrays a sense of what today’s self-help gurus call “self-actualization,” but that those philosophes who created, under the editorship of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, the great bible of the Enlightenment, the thirty-five-volume Encyclopédie dedicated to scientific and secular thought, called “satisfaction” or “interior contentedness.”

From the Latin satis (enough) facere (to do), satisfaction originally meant the payment of a debt or fulfilment of an obligation. In particular, it meant the appropriate amount of penance required to balance out a sin (see: REMORSE). At least, this is the primary sense given in the Encylopédie, but its authors also included discussions of satisfaction as a sentiment (their word for an emotion). They believed a feeling of satisfaction, which they sometimes called “contentment,” came from using one’s skills in the appropriate manner, and that discontent or restlessness came from having certain abilities or interests, but not being able to give them free rein. In this way, these eighteenth-century discussions foreshadow today’s preoccupation with “job satisfaction.” For these Enlightenment authors, the satisfaction of using one’s faculties (we’d call them skills or capacities) was a “secret joy,” and “the most pleasant sentiment of all.”

Amid the social upheavals that led to the French Revolution of 1789, some French aristocrats began to move away from the stiffness of the court and embraced the attitude of the philosophes. Previous generations of the upper classes had been depicted in portraits with their mouths enigmatically clamped shut—perhaps they feared exposing the rotten and yellowing stumps of their teeth, perhaps they worried about being thought indecorous, since only farm laborers and servants appeared in paintings with their mouths agape. In the 1780s, however, smiles began to light up the walls of Versailles. They were a symbol both of progressiveness and of wealth—since only the richest could enjoy the prestige of the latest porcelain smile, a consequence of the period’s advances in dentistry. Whether philosophes or aristocrats, however, Parisians didn’t enjoy their self-satisfied smiles for very long. By the time of the September massacres of 1792, when mobs of Parisians killed thousands of suspected royalists, they were more commonly depicted wearing violent screams instead.

A hundred and fifty or so years later, in the 1950s and ’60s, a person could walk down the street in any American town and see encouraging smiles beaming down from the billboards above them. Further improvements in dentistry no doubt fueled a willingness by advertisers to sell products with a smile—and America’s celebration of CHEERFULNESS probably played its role too. Smiling housewives promised a vision of a satisfied—and importantly, a sexually satisfied—life. And it’s this particular satisfied smile that we see in the original poster for Grease. While Danny (John Travolta) smolders with a pout, Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) appears dressed up in her rebellious, “bad girl” outfit, her lips parted in a smile, a row of perfect pearly whites for all to see—and envy.

See also: SMUGNESS.