Book review: The Book of Human Emotions is an exercise in managing slight frustration

Tiffany Watt Smith skips through her history of feelings, throwing out references to art, philosophy and literature, but doesn't quite satisfy the curiosity she stokes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 October, 2015, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 October, 2015, 3:01pm

You sent out the email two weeks ago for the Big Event. Forty-six friends. Too crass to ask for an RSVP. It's just a housewarming; not a wedding. Nobody replied. The invite said 8ish and it's 8.04. You check your email and your phone; you peek through the spyhole in the door; you listen for the lift.

You're in the grip of iktsuarpok, the Inuit term for the fidgety anxiety felt before the expected arrival of visitors.

Torschlusspanik (German for "gate-closing-panic") might set in when the guests start arriving and you realise you've forgotten to add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar to your signature canapes. But as the night turns into a blazing success, you may feel exuberance. If you're a speaker of Welsh, you'd call this hwyl - literally a boat's sail. Basorexia - a sudden urge to kiss someone - may grip you.

And as you say goodbye to the last guest, close the door and survey your empty home, a wave of awumbuk washes over you - the oppressive emptiness that comes when visitors depart, according to the Baining people of Papua New Guinea.

Tiffany Watt Smith, a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, has collated these and 151 other feelings in The Book of Human Emotions. The book aims to help us better understand our assumptions about where our emotions come from. This is increasingly important, she says, because our emotions are "measured by governments, subject to increasing pharmaceutical intervention by doctors, taught in our schools and monitored by our employers".

There is a serious point here. How can governments aim to enhance the Gross Happiness Index of their citizens when happiness itself is such an elusive feeling? "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so," said philosopher John Stuart Mill. The idea that you can measure, spark and increase the general store of happiness is a relatively new concept, the author says.

That word itself originates from the Old Norse happ, meaning chance, luck or success, and was for centuries associated with good fortune or God's grace - happenstance or serendipity. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson stated that we all have the right to "the pursuit of happiness" and strenuous attempts followed to quantify and catalogue the ingredients of happiness.

Today's teenagers can show a scary capacity for empathising with the troubles of totally unrelated strangers. Empathy is often a core value espoused by schools. Hatred is barred - even the discussion of it is forbidden. Yet for Aristotle, hatred was an ethical emotion felt towards people who behave badly: "Everyone hates a thief and an informer," he said. Empathy, by contrast, is a modern concept spawned from the 18th-century creation of sympathy and sharing its tendency to stoke sentimentality and - a possible though debatable benefit - benevolence and philanthropy.

Emotions are devilishly difficult to pin down. Hardly surprising, when we don't really know where they come from or what causes them. Feelings such as anger, envy and fear may have a clear evolutionary root. But the palette of human emotions is so vast and textured that any attempts at a purely physiological explanation fall short - the difference between a wink and a blink, for example.

Culture and history play an equal if not greater role, which is what makes a book of this nature so challenging. The way we experience emotions changes over time and depends on our cultural setting. Knights routinely swooned when overcome by their passions; Londoners dropped dead from fear as late as 1665; and Victorian men wept copiously at the sight of others' suffering. By definition, pinning 156 emotions into boxes like so many butterflies fails to capture their dancing, fluid nature. And which ones to pin down? Why not timidity, or frivolity? The author skips frivolously through each entry, breezily throwing out references to philosophy, science, anthropology, literature and great works of art, but rarely dallies long enough to satisfy the reader's newly stoked curiosity. An appendix of further reading goes some way towards plugging that hole; but the lack of an index added to my frustration.

Watt Smith's book offers tantalising tidbits but little in the way of serious insight. In other words: anticipation gave way to exasperation, leaving me a bit miffed until apathy set in.

The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith (Profile Books)