How other languages can reveal the secrets to happiness

By Tim Lomas

Dive into the unfamiliar to learn the language of happiness. Photo / iStock
Dive into the unfamiliar to learn the language of happiness. Photo / iStock

The limits of our language are said to define the boundaries of our world. This is because in our everyday lives, we can only really register and make sense of what we can name. We are restricted by the words we know, which shape what we can and cannot experience.

It is true that sometimes we may have fleeting sensations and feelings that we don't quite have a name for - akin to words on the "tip of our tongue".

But without a word to label these sensations or feelings they are often overlooked, never to be fully acknowledged, articulated or even remembered.

And instead, they are often lumped together with more generalised emotions, such as "happiness" or "joy".

This applies to all aspects of life - and not least to that most sought-after and cherished of feelings, happiness.

Clearly, most people know and understand happiness, at least vaguely. But they are hindered by their "lexical limitations" and the words at their disposal.

As English speakers, we inherit, rather haphazardly, a set of words and phrases to represent and describe our world around us.

Whatever vocabulary we have managed to acquire in relation to happiness will influence the types of feelings we can enjoy.

If we lack a word for a particular positive emotion, we are far less likely to experience it. And even if we do somehow experience it, we are unlikely to perceive it with much clarity, think about it with much understanding, talk about it with much insight, or remember it with much vividness.

Speaking of happiness

This recognition is sobering, but it is also exciting, because it means by learning new words and concepts, we can enrich our emotional world.

So, in theory, we can actually enhance our experience of happiness simply through exploring language.

Prompted by this enthralling possibility, I recently embarked on a project to discover "new" words and concepts relating to happiness.

I did this by searching for so-called "untranslatable" words from across the world's languages.

These are words where no exact equivalent word or phrase exists in English, and as such, suggest the possibility that other cultures have stumbled upon phenomena that English-speaking places have somehow overlooked.

Perhaps the most famous example is "schadenfreude", the German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words pique our curiosity, as they appear to reveal something specific about the culture that created them - as if German people are potentially especially liable to feelings of schadenfreude (though I don't believe that's the case).

 Germans are no more likely to experience Schadenfreude than they are to drink huge steins of beer. Photo / iStock
Germans are no more likely to experience Schadenfreude than they are to drink huge steins of beer. Photo / iStock

However, these words actually may be far more significant than that. Consider the fact that schadenfreude has been imported wholesale into English.

Evidently, English speakers had at least a passing familiarity with this kind of feeling, but lacked the word to articulate it (although I suppose "gloating" comes close) - hence, the grateful borrowing of the German term.

As a result, their emotional landscape has been enlivened and enriched, able to give voice to feelings that might previously have remained unconceptualised and unexpressed.

My research searched for these kind of "untranslatable words" - ones that specifically related to happiness and well-being. I trawled the internet looking for relevant websites, blogs, books and academic papers, and gathered a respectable haul of 216 such words.

Now, the list has expanded - partly due to the generous feedback of visitors to my website - to more than 600 words.

Enriching emotions

When analysing these "untranslatable words", I divide them into three categories based on my subjective reaction to them.

First, there are those that immediately resonate with me as something I have definitely experienced, but just haven't previously been able to articulate. For instance, I love the strange German noun "waldeinsamkeit", which captures that eerie, mysterious feeling that often descends when you're alone in the woods.

In the second group are words that strike me as somewhat familiar, but not entirely, as if I can't quite grasp their layers of complexity. For instance, I'm hugely intrigued by various Japanese aesthetic concepts, such as "aware" (哀れ), which evokes the bitter-sweetness of a brief, fading moment of transcendent beauty. This is symbolised by the cherry blossom, and as spring bloomed in England I found myself reflecting at length on this powerful yet intangible notion.

Finally, there is a mysterious set of words that completely elude my grasp, but for precisely that reason are totally captivating. These terms, such as "nirvana" or "brahman", mainly hail from Eastern religions and translate roughly as the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena in the Hindu scriptures. It feels like it would require a lifetime of study to even begin to grasp the meaning, which is probably exactly the point of these types of words.

Words offer a unique window onto the world's cultures, revealing diversity in the way people in different places experience and understand life. Photo / iStock
Words offer a unique window onto the world's cultures, revealing diversity in the way people in different places experience and understand life. Photo / iStock

I believe these words offer a unique window into the world's cultures, revealing diversity in the way people in different places experience and understand life. People are naturally curious about other ways of living, about new possibilities in life, and so are drawn to ideas - like these untranslatable words - that reveal such possibilities.

There is huge potential for these words to enrich and expand people's emotional worlds, as each comes a tantalising glimpse into unfamiliar and new positive feelings and experiences. And who wouldn't be interested in adding a bit more happiness to their lives?

- The Conversation

Tim Lomas lectures in applied positive psychology at the University of East London. His research explores the effect of meditation on men's well-being using narrative interviews, cognitive testing, and EEG measurement. He is the author of Masculinity, Meditation and Mental Health (2014, Palgrave Macmillan) and Applied Positive Psychology: Integrated Positive Practice (2014, Sage).

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