Shedding Light in the Darkness

The Limits of English to Express Happiness


It turns out that English is a pretty poor language to express states of positive emotions. Other languages have hundreds of words associated with positive emotions, but many do not have a direct translation in English. University of East London psychology lecturer Tim Lomas has assembled some of the most striking non-English words about emotions in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

We discover words like volta, a Greek word describing a leisurely stroll down the street. Jugaad, a Hindi term meaning the ability to get by. Gumusservi, Turkish for the subtle glimmer that moonlight makes on water. Cafune, Portuguese for tenderly running one’s fingers through a loved one’s hair. Cwtch, Welsh for a hug or a safe welcoming place. Feierabend, a German word to describe the festive mood at the end of a working day, and questing, Dutch for allowing a lover access to one’s bed for chitchat.

On Positive feelings, he writes: “Most languages not only possess terms that are translated as happiness, but moreover have numerous such terms, each of which captures different nuances. Urdu for example has at least 16 words that might be translated as happiness, including terms that articulate: enjoyment or merriment, such as kayf and xurramii; pleasure, like suwaad and shaadmaanii; gladness and good cheer, like dilshaadgii; prosperity and fecility, like sazaadat and xushii; more ‘elevated’ forms like joy and delight, such as masarrat and farhat; and even stronger forms such as bliss, e.g. anand and sarshaarii.

“Tthere are words capturing specific flavours of pleasure and enjoyment. Some pertain to satiating appetites: Spanish uses gula for the desire to eat simply for the taste, while shemomedjamo (Georgian) describes eating past the point of satiety due to sheer gustatory enjoyment. Many cultures acknowledge the importance of sharing such pleasures with friends; e.g. Spanish has sobremesa for when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing.

There are “words given to socialising around food and drink – each with their own cultural nuances – including fika (Swedish), borrel (Dutch), sahar (Arabic) and parea (Greek). Further forms of merrymaking include: mbukimvuki (Bantu), to ‘shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance’; utepils (Norwegian), i.e. drinking beer outside on a hot day; and Schnapsidee (German), an ingenious plan one hatches while drunk.

“This whole area of revelry is encapsulated by the Balinese ramé, namely something at once chaotic and joyful. We might also mention: desbundar, Portuguese for shedding one’s inhibitions in having fun; the neglected English verb deliciate, which refers to luxuriating in pleasure; Thai sabsung, which signifies being revitalised through something that livens up one’s life; German Feierabend, which articulates the festive mood that can arrive at the end of a working day; and the multipurpose Dutch adjective lekker, which can mean anything from relaxed and comfortable to pleasurable and sexy.

“Cultures in more temperate climates have fashioned words for more expansive and outgoing experiences of savouring. Such savouring includes leisurely strolling the streets, captured by the French verb flâner and the Greek volta. These not only refer to taking in the sights and conversing with passers-by, but in their lack of destination, also a sense of freedom and possibility. Emphasising fresh air and health, the Dutch uitwaaien means to walk in the wind for fun. Also with an appreciation of nature, Japanese shinrinyoku is the relaxation gained from ‘bathing’ in the forest (figuratively and/or literally), while Swedish gökotta means waking up early with the purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing.

“Then we find words expressing stronger states of happiness. Some pertain to joy, like: simcha (Hebrew); me yia, which is a blessing of good health for others; and suaimhneas croi (Gaelic), depicting a state of happiness encountered specifically after a task has been finished. Others surpass even joy, including: njuta (Swedish), a profound experience of appreciation, verging on bliss; tarab (Arabic), a musically-induced state of ecstasy or enchantment; and Herrliches Gefühle (German), made famous by Goethe, described as ‘glorious feelings.’

“There are terms depicting states of happiness which, while intense, are yet stable and lasting, less dependent on specific situations, such as the Chinese xìngfú and Sanskrit sukha. In Buddhism, sukha is used to mean ‘genuine’ happiness, in contrast to the more fleeting hedonic forms captured by anand.”

The German language includes vorfreude, the intense, joyful anticipation derived from imagining future pleasures, although this does depend on a strong likelihood of attainment. And waldeinsamkeit, which articulates the feeling of solitude when alone in the woods, a mysterious state described by Schwartz as the ‘pseudo-magical pull of the untamed wilderness; a place of living nightmares caught between the dreamscape and Fairyland’.

“Then there are words that articulate the act of appreciation itself. Japanese is particularly rich in these. Aware is the bittersweetness of a brief, fading moment of transcendent beauty, while mono no aware is the pathos of understanding that the world and its beauty are transient in this way. Similarly, ukiyo, literally ‘floating world’, expresses a sense of living in these moments of fleeting beauty, detached from the pains of life. Wabi refers to imperfect beauty, and sabi to aged beauty. Finally, yūgen is described as the most ‘ineffable’ of aesthetic concepts; both yū and gen mean ‘cloudy impenetrability’, and together express ‘unknowability’ and ‘mystery’, a feeling of being moved to one’s core by the impenetrable depths of existence.”

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