Have you ever considered that the language you speak can affect your happiness? Hear me out.
There is a universal skew towards happy words in all languages. That is, all human languages have more happy words than non-happy words. More words for “love”, for instance, than “hate”. But research shows that some languages contain more happy words than others. Could this mean that using a different language could make us happier?
Psychologist Tim Lomas argues that English-speakers aren’t as happy as they could be, in part because our definition of happiness is limited. His work reveals that other languages have concepts of well-being that are far more developed than ours. Because we cannot understand them, we miss out on the insights they convey.
Given that, as humans, we are all on the eternal hunt for happiness, what can other languages teach us about how to express ourselves better? And what insight can they offer to users of the English language (purportedly, the biggest moaners of all)?
To save you time on learning Mandarin or conversing with your Spanish neighbour, here’s our pick of the words to consider adding to your ‘Happiness Dictionary’.
Consider the Japanese word, ‘wabi sabi’ , meaning ‘imperfect, weathered, rustic beauty.’ Adding this to our vocabulary allows one to view the world with a new lense. Suddenly a dilapidated, overgrown building or broken glass can be appreciated for its raw imperfect beauty.
Ubuntu is a Zulu word describing togetherness; the belief that we are bound together in ways invisible to the eye. The term places emphasis on the fact, ‘I am, because you are’ – expressing how our actions have an impact on others and society. Cultivating this worldview of interconnectedness is fundamental to remaining humble and finding compassion and empathy. We are all part of something bigger than ourselves.
Schadenfreude / Firgun
The english word ‘pride’ doesn’t differentiate between the pride you feel for a colleague who has reached the sales target, who you’re a little jealous of, and the genuine pride you feel for your child winning their athletics meet. German has the word ‘schadenfreude’ for the former and Hebrew has the word ‘firgun’ which describes overt pride in another’s success.
The word ‘dadirri’, is prominent in several Australian Aboriginal languages. It describes a respectful deep listening to the natural world. Adding ‘dadirri’ to our routine provides comfort of continuity, and connectedness. In the end perhaps only our language has made us feel cut off?
The French word ‘dépayser’ describes blissful disorientation. Imagine the pleasant sense of strangeness from being in a foreign country; your senses overwhelmed with unfamiliar sounds and smells. A wonderful word that “thrill” or “excitement” simply can’t match.
The word ‘duende’ is as sassy as it sounds. This is Spanish for, ‘a heightened state of passionate emotion that you experience through art or dance’. Without this word, I now wonder how we ever described the joy that’s felt in the rhythm of one’s hips.
Words like these are alluring because they’re so much more than just singular words — they’re ‘lexical powerhouses’ that seem to contain holistic worldviews. They let us see how other cultures describe their experiences, offering us more options for how we might understand ours.
While we have no way of immersing ourselves in these words, in the same way, they’d be experienced by native speakers, broadening your Happiness Dictionary is about trying to observe the world a bit differently. Will adding these ‘untranslatable words’ into our everyday lives can help us imagine and experience more types of happiness? I say it’s worth a try!