The Declaration of Independence promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But what kind of happiness? Are we talking about what English speakers call “joy,” or alternatively “contentment”? Or maybe it’s “hygge,” the now-trendy Danish word alluding to physical and emotional coziness? Or perhaps we mean something like the French “savoir vivre,” which describes an enviable knowledge of how to live deeply and fully. Our word “happiness” covers a lot of emotional territory — territory that other languages have divided up somewhat differently.
Think of language as a map that helps us navigate our experiential world. Language makes it comprehensible by segmenting it into distinct regions and labelling them. With feelings, for instance, we demarcate a particular configuration of brightness as “joy” and a calmer form as “contentment.” Crucially, although human beings inhabit a similar existential terrain, cultures have developed subtly different maps of this landscape. Languages carve it up in idiosyncratic ways, influenced by factors such as geography, climate, tradition, and values. Consequently, people are liable to experience the world differently.
In that spirit, a language may have identified a phenomenon which our own tongue has overlooked for some reason. Their word for it is thus untranslatable, in that we have no exact equivalent. A classic example is the German “schadenfreude,” describing malicious joy at an adversary’s misfortune. It’s not that only German speakers know this feeling; we all probably have a passing familiarity with it. But without a label, the phenomenon in question is usually harder to identify, conceptualize, understand, communicate, and remember.
How much does the language people speak shape the way that they think? This question is an old one in linguistics. Fiercely debated by scholars, the linguistic relativity hypothesis — or more popularly, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — holds that language influences our lived experience, affecting how we perceive, understand, and operate in the world.
This line of thinking influenced George Orwell; in “1984,” Big Brother’s regime hopes to limit the range of possible thought by eliminating words from the English language. More recently, Denis Villeneuve’s ethereal 2016 masterpiece “Arrival” pushed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to an extreme. By learning the language of alien visitors, the movie’s bold protagonist perceives the world in new ways and — spoiler alert! — experiences time itself in a nonlinear way.
That was science fiction, of course. It’s much less far-fetched to believe that having a label for something tends to make it more real, more concrete.
This is not a static picture, however. Cultures and languages evolve, including by borrowing words from one another. If people encounter a foreign term that articulates some experience that their own tongue fails to, they sometimes adopt it as a loan word. As indeed English-speakers have with “schadenfreude,” and many other German terms, from “gestalt” to “zeitgeist.” The world is complex, and we naturally learn from each other in making sense of it.
I am a researcher in positive psychology (the study of well-being). Although global in reach and scope, the field is rather Western-centric, with English the default setting for its discourse. Given the linguistic relativity hypothesis, this means its theorizing about well-being is shaped by the nature of this language. Relatedly, the field is liable to overlook the knowledge and insights developed within non-English-speaking cultures.
Keen to help redress this situation, in 2015 I stumbled upon the idea of creating a ‘positive cross-cultural lexicography’ of untranslatable words relating to well-being. I had just heard a talk on “sisu,” a form of extraordinary courage and determination that’s at the heart of Finnish culture. Speaking about it with my mother — source of many good ideas! — we reasoned that most languages probably have similarly untranslatable words of interest to psychology. I pictured a crowd-sourced collection, with people sharing words from their languages. So, I created a website (www.drtimlomas.com/lexicography) to which people began to generously offer suggestions, and the evolving list now features nearly 1,000 words.
My approach has been to analyze the words thematically, aiming to improve our ‘map’ of well-being. Even if some terms are culture-specific — only truly experienced or understood by people within that particular society — collectively they show humankind’s potential to prosper and flourish. So far, this map has three broad “continents”: feelings, relationships, and matters of personal character. Moreover, just as Google Maps allows us to zoom in with ever finer-grained detail, each continent can be subdivided further into more precise regions.
Firstly, the realm of feelings comprises the sunny uplands of positive emotions, together with a shaded region of more ambivalent ones. Our appreciation of positivity is brightened by such words as the aforementioned “hygge,” for example. Often conveyed and indeed commodified by the accoutrements of cosiness — think cocoa and candles — it alludes to an ineffable sense of feeling warm, safe, and content. Meanwhile, people also value certain ambivalent feelings — subtly blending light and dark sensibilities — such as the longing expressed in the German “sehnsucht,” which articulates a utopian yearning for better futures.
The second continent is relationships, from the intimacies of love to sociality more broadly. In English, “love” famously covers a dizzying range of feelings and relationships. These include playful forms of affection, as reflected in the Tagalog “gigil,” for that irresistible urge to squeeze or pinch someone who is cherished. Added to such intimacies are words relating to the quality of our social connections in general. Group solidarity and cohesion, for instance, are reflected in terms like the Swahili “tuko pamoja,” which conveys a sense of “we are one.”
Finally, the third great realm concerns character, encompassing valued personal qualities as well as the more far-reaching possibilitiesy of psychospiritual development. Preferred qualities include the French “savoir vivre,” cousin of the better known “savoir faire.” Finally, a wealth of words concern the mysterious potential associated with religion and spirituality. These include the Pali notion of “sati,” conveying a precious meditative awareness of the present moment. Indeed, like “hygge,” this too has come to widespread attention on lifestyle blogs and elsewhere, usually rendered (rather imperfectly) as “mindfulness.”
I’m merely skimming the surface here, of course. The map has nearly 1,000 regions (i.e., words) so far, and even then, many more have yet to be included (given that the lexicography currently only features around 100 languages, out of some 7,000 worldwide). Moreover, each region is a complex area, filled with granular detail to which a brief description barely does justice. Indeed, the words are portals not just to what we call happiness — but to whole new ways of thinking and of being.
Tim Lomas, a lecturer at the University of East London, is the author of “Translating Happiness: A Cross-cultural Lexicon of Well-being.”