A psychologist claims that learning “untranslatable words” from other cultures may be a key to being happy. I experimented on myself to see whether it’s true.
“Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
The saying, sometimes attributed to the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, cautions us to not pursue happiness aggressively; we’ve got to just let it come to us. But for many of us today, such 19th century romantic musings seem quaint, if not downright un-American.
The pursuit of happiness inscribed into the Declaration of Independence has grown into a national obsession. We compulsively compare ourselves to others, asking whether they’re happier than we are and why, and then we buy — a yoga studio membership, an empowerment seminar, an $80 Goop water bottle with a built-in rose quartz crystal — to stop losing the competition.
I admit that I, too, zealously hunt down happiness these days. I’ve had a rough couple of years. My dad had a heart attack. My apartment was burglarized. My knees were gripped by chronic pain so intense that, for a while, I could barely walk.
So when I stumbled across the work of Tim Lomas, I pounced on his books, butterfly net in hand. A lecturer at the University of East London, Lomas specializes in a field known as positive psychology, the study of what makes human beings happy. Not just happy in the narrow sense, like the fleeting joy you get from ice cream, but in the broader sense of human flourishing — what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia. Positive psychologists research which factors are the biggest contributors to well-being, from income level to relationships to religiosity.
Lomas has recently published a trio of works on the connection between well-being and language: The Happiness Dictionary, Translating Happiness, and Happiness Found in Translation, his illustrated chapbook published this fall. In them, he says most of us in the West aren’t as happy as we could be, in part because we have a limited definition of happiness. Other cultures have concepts of well-being that are vastly different from ours, but because they’re expressed in languages we don’t understand, Lomas argues, we’re missing out on the insights they embody.
So in 2015, Lomas started the Positive Lexicography Project, a crowdsourced treasury of global terms of well-being, everything from fjaka (Croatian for “the sweetness of doing nothing”) to ubuntu (Zulu for “a spirit of universal kindness and common humanity: I am because you are”).
With the help of far-flung strangers on the internet, he’s since mined 140 languages to come up with a whopping 1,200 words. Each has its own unique shades of meaning not fully captured in English translation. He argues that engaging with these “untranslatable” terms can help us imagine, and ultimately experience, more types of well-being.
And a sense of well-being seems to be in short supply in the US. Americans are only becoming more miserable, according to the World Happiness Report. In 2019, the US dropped in the rankings for the third year in a row, coming in 19th place. Experts blame the decline on various factors, including the deadliest drug overdose crisis in our history, ever-higher levels of anxiety in annual surveys, and decreased trust in politicians and other public figures.
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to understand why the emerging field of positive psychology has grown popular both in academia and among the public. And given that the American hunt for happiness is turning out to be pretty unsuccessful, it’s not surprising that proposals such as Lomas’s — which suggest turning to other cultures for insight — exert a seductive pull.
When I called Lomas at his home in London, he told me one of his favorite words is wabi sabi, which is Japanese for “imperfect, weathered, rustic beauty.” The term puts him in a different frame of mind, letting him see things with new eyes.
“Right now I’m looking out at my garden,” he said. “There’s some broken pots there. So I’m thinking, is there a way to look at these pots in such a way that, even though they’re imperfect and old, I see there really is a beauty to them?”
Words like these are tantalizing because they’re so much more than just single words — they’re lexical powerhouses that seem to contain entire worldviews. They let us see how other cultures parse their experiences, offering us more options for how we might understand and live ours.
“In positive psychology, interventions might involve recalling a positive experience and writing about it for 20 minutes, or just sitting and meditating on it,” Lomas said. “With wabi sabi, you could send people away for 24 hours and say, ‘Try and notice this wherever possible and keep a diary on those experiences.’”
Psychologists have adopted a term for the ability to distinguish between feelings in an extra-nuanced way: They call it “emotional granularity.” For example, English has words like pleasure, satisfaction, and pride, but they don’t allow you to differentiate between the pride you feel for a friend whose accomplishment you’re also a tad jealous of, and the pride you feel for a friend whom you’re genuinely, 100 percent happy for. Yet Hebrew has a word for the latter — firgun — which describes total ungrudging and overt pride in another’s success. And German has a word for the opposite of firgun: schadenfreude.
Several studies suggest that increasing emotional granularity is good for our mental and physical health. It makes us more aware of our subjective experiences, which in turn makes it easier for us to regulate our emotions and maintain equanimity. It’s a souped-up version of what we do with preschoolers: We teach them to identify their feelings — “I’m mad” or “I’m sad” — which is the first step toward learning how to manage them.
Lomas says we should try doing the same thing as adults but with untranslatable words, so that we add ever more complexity to our emotional vocabularies. Writing in Translating Happiness, he says he’d want to see “a pilot study, followed by larger-scale empirical testing, randomized controlled trials, replication studies, and meta-analyses. These studies could use psychometric scales to assess the extent of improvement.”
Although I’m in no position to conduct a scientific study, I felt a certain frisson (that’s French for “a spine-tingling shiver of excitement”) when I read this. I wondered what would happen if I picked a few untranslatable words and tried to cultivate the types of well-being they embody.
I knew I had no hope of feeling my way into these words the same way they’d be experienced by someone who’s spent a lifetime steeped in the cultural tradition that gave rise to them. For me to try to access these words outside of their original context would inevitably be to impoverish and distort them. Still, I wondered if spending a little time trying to learn from them would make it possible to experience the world just a bit differently.
I began to plan my experiments.
As a teenager, I used to dance salsa and flamenco. But recently? Not so much. Over the past few years, a chronic pain in my knees that no doctor could explain or treat kept me from dancing. Which is to say, it kept me from the activity that helped get me out of my head and into my body, that replaced worry with sensation. Happily, this year the pain finally subsided, and so I figured it was time to give duende a shot.
Duende is Spanish for a heightened state of passionate emotion that you experience through art, especially dance. The poet Federico García Lorca said having duende is “not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins … it burns the blood like powdered glass, it exhausts, it rejects all the sweet geometry we understand.” And according to Lomas, “The term derives from a magical elf-like creature in Spanish mythology, which suggests the nonrational and otherworldly nature of the mental state duende signifies.”
One weekend, I saw online that a club near my house was hosting a Cuban dance party. The party didn’t start until 11 pm and my elder-millennial friends could not be corralled off their couches at such an ungodly hour. So I went alone, figuring I’d do fine.
Nope. Not fine at all. Everyone there was intimidatingly fantastic at salsa dancing! The men’s footwork was so fast that their shoes blurred into invisibility; the women were all hips, dresses describing sexy circles in the air as they spun. I stood with my back pasted to the wall and guzzled rum.
Eventually, I forced myself to find a partner and hit the dance floor. As he cut confidently through the air, I felt like a penguin in his arms, flightless and waddling pathetically. My confidence level did not rise over the next few hours. Each dancer was somehow better than the last, and I was way too self-conscious to feel the passionate, out-of-your-mind ecstasy of duende. It’s hard to feel mystically transported when you’re worried about stepping on some hot guy’s toes.
And although I hated to admit it, the quote attributed to Hawthorne did seem to be on-point: Trying to manufacture joy can make it even harder to access.
It was 2 am when, pasted to the wall again, guzzling water this time, I finally met someone as clueless as I was. I asked him how it was that everyone there was an amazing dancer. “Didn’t you know?” he asked. “These are professionals. Half of them own their own studios in the area.” I exploded into laughter. How did I pick the one club in town where everyone was a goddamn dance instructor?
Knowing that helped me loosen up. The guy and I danced together, laughing at ourselves. I started to actually have fun. We spun each other around. We tangoed across the floor. We jumped onto the sides of pillars and kicked off from them, flying, however briefly, through the air. It was not really duende, but it was a joy I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
The underlying premise of Lomas’s work is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — a theory, proposed by linguist Edward Sapir in 1929 and later developed by his student Benjamin Whorf — that our language shapes what we’re capable of thinking and feeling. The strong version of the hypothesis, linguistic determinism, holds that you can’t experience a feeling the same way if you don’t have a word for it. Linguists critiqued that view heavily in the 1960s and ’70s, and it remains unpopular these days.
But a milder one, linguistic relativity, is still embraced by some scholars, including Lomas. It holds that language influences experience but doesn’t determine it.
Even linguistic relativity is controversial, though. Some linguists, like John McWhorter, insist that “the world looks the same in any language” — and argue that claiming otherwise risks fetishizing some cultures (“Italians are a romantic people”) and demeaning others. I share some of that concern. As a woman of color whose family hails from India, Iraq, and Morocco, I’m always wary of ideas with the potential to Orientalize or exoticize. At the same time, I wanted to engage with Lomas’s ideas in good faith.
If you find it hard to believe that engaging with untranslatable words can actually increase your well-being, Lomas told me, consider sati. That’s a Pali word from India that you may have seen translated as mindfulness, though many meditators prefer to leave it untranslated, saying the English term is too cerebral to capture the emotional and ethical valences of the original. (Sati also has a very different unrelated meaning among some Indians and Nepalese.)
In the West, sati has been popularized by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist who founded the Center for Mindfulness and who in the 1970s developed an eight-week course for people in clinical settings, which he called mindfulness-based stress reduction. Other American teachers, such as Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, have brought mindfulness practice sessions to the masses. Countless mindfulness apps have also embedded the concept firmly in our cultural lexicon. Lomas points to the rise of sati as evidence that Westerners can study an untranslatable phenomenon, create exercises for cultivating it, and through that measurably improve people’s well-being.
“People looked into sati and built a set of practices around it. That’s been so valuable,” Lomas told me. “Surely there are various other words you could explore in a similar way.”
But by and large, people haven’t yet done that. He’s currently collaborating with scholars in Spain and Japan to see if they can come up with exercises that will help people develop an experiential understanding of untranslatable terms.
Yet just as you need many, many hours of practice to develop mindfulness as a permanently altered trait rather than a temporarily altered state, cultivating different types of well-being will require more than a single exercise to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.
It will also require that Westerners expand our notion of happiness. Some types of well-being, Lomas writes, don’t come in purely pleasurable packets — they’re ambivalent, containing both positive and negative valences. Think of the Italian word magari, which suggests a sense of “maybe, possibly,” the wistful hope of “if only.” Or the Amharic word tizita, which means “a bittersweet remembrance and longing for a time, person, or thing gone by.” Lomas writes:
Psychologists are increasingly appreciative of such feelings, as seen in an emergent body of work that my colleagues and I refer to as “second-wave” positive psychology. When positive psychology was initiated in the 1990s, it defined itself by focusing on positive emotions and qualities. Before long, however, scholars started to critique this foundational [Western] concept of the “positive.”
While [the value of ambivalent feelings] has been recognized within Western academia only relatively recently, many cultures have long since acknowledged their significance.
Lomas says Eastern cultures, in particular, have a wealth of richly ambivalent words.
Mono no aware is a Japanese term for appreciating the transiency of life and its beauty, or recognizing that some things are beautiful in part because they’re impermanent.
“The prevalence and importance of mono no aware in Japanese culture may be attributed in part to the influence of Zen, the branch of Buddhism that flowered in Japan from the 12th century onward,” Lomas writes. “Mono no aware is an aesthetic approach to the cognizance of impermanence, which is central to Buddhist teaching.”
Soon after I read this, I learned about a nearby Zen Buddhist silent meditation retreat. Its theme was liberation from the fear of impermanence. It was meant to cultivate “wordless awareness,” which meant no speaking, no phones, no music, and no books. The idea of being without words for a whole weekend freaked me out, but I signed up anyway.
Liberation from fear of impermanence was something I could really use. Ever since my dad had a heart attack three years ago, I’ve been imagining his death and worrying excessively about when it will happen — What if he goes into cardiac arrest while I’m on a trip overseas and I can’t get back to him in time? Maybe I shouldn’t go on overseas trips! — and how I’ll cope.
When I arrived at the retreat, 20 participants wearing sweatpants and kind smiles — mostly retirees grappling with the looming prospect of their own death — sat in a circle. The retreat leader said we’d be working through the “Touchings of the Earth,” a series of exercises designed by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk famed for his teachings on mindfulness. The leader told us he would read three phrases, and after each one, we’d prostrate ourselves on the ground, where we’d lie for five minutes in contemplation.
I felt a bit uncomfortable about the prostrating bit because that’s not really part of my cultural lexicon, but before I knew it, he was intoning the first phrase: “Touching the earth, I connect with ancestors and descendants of both my spiritual and my blood families.”
Down I went with everyone else. Pretty soon, I realized the benefits of lying flat-out on my belly. It humbled me. And it let me imagine myself as a straight line through time, my feet in the past, my hands stretching into the future. I found myself thinking of my Indian great-great-grandmother, an orphan who at age 13 was sent on a rickety train from Calcutta to Bombay to marry a man three times her age.
I thought of all the choices she made to shield her son from violence and poverty, and how they filtered down through the generations, eventually conditioning the choices my dad made for me. All these choices were still shaping my life in palpable ways: my geography, my class, my psychological makeup. I was just starting to think about how my own choices will shape the lives of my potential future children when a bell rang and everyone stood up.
“Touching the earth, I connect with all people and all species which are alive at this moment in this world with me.”
This time I thought of climate change. I pictured all the species we’re losing, trying to visualize each bird, each bee. Now I was a horizontal line, connecting outward to other beings in the present, feeling how precarious they are. The bell rang; everyone stood.
“Touching the earth, I let go of my idea that I am this body and my lifespan is limited.”
Maybe because I’d just imagined myself as an infinite line, stretching out first vertically, then horizontally, it was surprisingly easy to let go of my notion of self as a bounded thing. If my great-great-grandmother’s choices were shaping the lives of my potential future children and my action or nonaction was shaping the lives of birds millions of miles away, what sense did it make to consider myself a separate individual?
As we repeated this exercise over the three-day retreat, I felt open and raw, a crustacean without her shell: soft everywhere. I realized I’d been scared of the prospect of my dad dying in part because I’m scared that his individual mind will no longer be able to speak to me, comfort me, or advise me with any real particularity. I’d hated the notion of his him-ness evanescing into some anonymous flow of consciousness, a drop of water that loses its identity in the ocean.
By the end of the retreat, I didn’t come to completely embrace that notion or magically lose all my fear. What I felt was subtler; I simply feared and hated a little less. Maybe it wasn’t so bad for our particular identities to be transient, if we continue to communicate with everyone and everything through the choices we’ve made. Maybe, as mono no aware suggests, there was even a bit of loveliness to it.
Even as happiness in the US has been decreasing, countries around the world have become more committed to studying, tracking, and increasing their citizens’ well-being.
Amid the global financial crisis, national happiness became the subject of policy conferences and college courses. France commissioned a study on it, which leading economists — Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi — completed in 2009. In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released its first well-being report on its member countries, and in 2012, the UN began releasing its annual World Happiness Report.
Several countries are now explicitly focused on boosting well-being. There’s Bhutan, which in 2008 enshrined “gross national happiness” in its Constitution. There’s the United Arab Emirates, which in 2016 appointed a minister of state for happiness. And there’s New Zealand, which earlier this year released the world’s first-ever “well-being budget.” To measure progress toward increased well-being and inform policy, the government there will use 61 indicators tracking everything from loneliness to water quality.
That’s important, because government decisions — and major social problems like racism — do a lot to condition and constrain the types of happiness citizens can access. Political and social change are crucial for increasing well-being; the onus can’t and shouldn’t fall squarely on the individual.
But the machinery of policy grinds slowly, and many individuals want to feel happier now. That’s where Lomas’s ideas may be useful.
Of course, people looking to boost their happiness will find countless other recommendations out there. Many claims stemming from the $4 trillion “wellness” or “self-care” industry — that vaginal jade eggs can fix your hormone levels, say — are not evidence-based. But some other techniques are backed by research. For instance, Laurie Santos, a psychologist who teaches a Yale course on happiness (the university’s most popular class ever), has explained the efficacy of activities like gratitude journaling. Research has also shown that strong social relationships are crucial to well-being; anything we can do to reduce the toxic effects of loneliness is probably going to yield major dividends.
By comparison, how effective is Lomas’s language-learning intervention likely to be?
It’s an empirical question to which we don’t have an answer because it has barely been studied. (My own personal study, with a sample size of one, is nothing like a rigorous scientific trial.) It’s also a question that’s difficult to answer because Lomas’s proposal is actually many proposals. It involves cultivating a plethora of different positive experiences. Plus, you can cultivate them in different ways — and which way you choose matters.
“If Lomas’s intervention involves writing in a journal, that may overlap a lot with gratitude journaling,” said Katie Hoemann, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northeastern University who researches the interaction between language and emotion. “And if you’re doing the intervention in a social context, you’re probably getting social benefits, too.” The variables may be difficult to isolate.
Hoemann sounded a note of skepticism about the emotional granularity assumption underlying Lomas’s proposal. She noted that although studies have indeed shown a link between emotional granularity and better behavioral control in the face of negative feelings, the evidence that increasing granularity ups positive feelings is much thinner.
Janet Nicol, a professor of linguistics, psychology, and cognitive science at the University of Arizona, cast doubt on Lomas’s claim that learning untranslatable words may improve our well-being. “That kind of claim is just not supported by the evidence so far,” she said. “I think he’s overstating the effects.”
She imagined an experiment to test the hypothesis: Teach a bunch of people the Chinese principle of feng shui, have them rearrange the furniture in their homes accordingly, give them a well-being survey before and after, and measure the extent of improvement. “But in that case, is it the language that’s important or is it just the idea?” Nicol asked. “I don’t think they have to learn the foreign term feng shui in order to learn the idea.”
Nevertheless, Hoemann suggested there’s something here that merits serious investigation, because having a specific word for something does help us identify it. “It might seem like a small individual act to learn new words. But if there are many individuals doing it, there’s a snowball effect and it actually becomes part of our culture.”
In the meantime, people are still suggesting more words for Lomas’s online lexicon. He’s noticing trends in the types of well-being they tend to harp on — groupings that he thinks may reveal something about what human beings find most vital these days. When I asked him what theme is coming through strongest, he replied immediately: our relationship to nature.
The word dadirri, used in several Australian Aboriginal languages, describes a respectful deep listening to the natural world, a receptive state that can be healing. Lomas quotes Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann of the Ngangikurungkurr tribe, who explains, “When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness.”
Although I was under no illusion that I’d be able to experience dadirri as Ungunmerr-Baumann does, I thought I might try to explore it in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, where I spent a few days in October.
One morning, I woke up before dawn and went outside. I purposely brought no phone, no people, no distractions. As the sun rose, I sat on a rock and tried to listen. At first I heard only the loud birds who seemed to be in charge of screaming the world’s pain: Ow! Ow! Ow! Owwwwwww! Ow!
Slowly I began to hear subtler sounds. The water lapping at the land. The occasional swish of a fish breaking the surface and flumping back into the bay.
Each time I heard that flump, I swiveled around trying to see the fish that had produced it — until I realized that by the time you can turn your head, you’ll already have missed it. Better to keep your eyes focused on one patch of water, watching and listening.
Sure enough, several minutes later I was rewarded for my attention by the sight of a great dark fish rising above the surface.
I felt a quiet elation — and then gratitude toward the word dadirri for getting me to put myself in the way of this happiness. It’s not that I’d never experienced anything like it before, but having a word for it made me more purposeful about cultivating it and also helped me notice it as it was happening.
I found myself curious about the elation I felt. What is it that makes nature so restorative? I thought it must have to do with the way that, when we’re outdoors, we can more easily sense the interconnectedness of everything. We remember that we’re part of a vast and complex ecosystem, which has gone on long before us and will go on long after us. Knowing this helps to repair the breach we feel in times of loneliness and alienation between us and other beings. It offers the comfort of continuity, the conviction that even if we feel cut off, we’re not really — it’s only that our language has failed us.
After entertaining these wispy thoughts, I looked down to find that a spider had been busy literalizing my metaphor. She’d spun her silky strands across my limbs, making me an actual part of her web.
I laughed, thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The happiness that alighted upon me then wasn’t a butterfly, but it was pretty damn close.
Sigal Samuel is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect. She writes about artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and the intersection of technology and religion. She previously wrote about anxiety apps for The Highlight.
Jordan Kay is an illustrator and animation dabbler based in Seattle, Washington.
Author: Sigal Samuel