11 Untranslatable Words for Happiness From Around the World
You know that feeling you get when you listen to your favorite song? Or the feeling you get when somebody cancels a meeting? You’d probably categorize both as happiness, but they’re not exactly the same emotion. And, while there are plenty of English synonyms for happiness—such as joy, pleasure, cheer, glee, contentment—none of them really capture either feeling with much precision.
In his new book, Happiness—Found in Translation, psychologist Tim Lomas creates a road map for identifying various types of happiness, filled with words from other languages that don’t necessarily have English equivalents. In addition to expanding your mental lexicon with beautiful vocabulary, Lomas argues that learning words to describe different feelings can actually magnify the feelings themselves. “Generally, the more awareness and understanding we have of our emotional lives, the greater our well-being,” he writes.
Expand your emotional literacy with 11 of our favorite happiness terms below, complemented by illustrations from Annika Huett.
1. Shinrin-yoku (Japanese)
Going for a walk in the woods can sometimes clear your mind just as well as a good meditation session. There’s no English term to capture the restorative effect of immersing yourself in nature, but the Japanese call it shinrin-yoku.
2. Charmolypi (Greek)
“Sweet, joy-making sorrow.”
The best word we have to describe how you feel while celebrating the life of a loved one who recently died or waving goodbye to your toddler on their first day of school is probably bittersweet, but that doesn’t convey the depth of that peculiar happy-sad emotion quite like charmolypi does.
3. Fjaka (Croatian)
“The sweetness of doing nothing.”
In a society that champions the ability to multitask above all else, not trying to check the next item off your to-do list can seem overindulgent or even counterproductive. But if you do manage to surrender your whole mind and body to not doing anything at all, it can feel almost euphoric. Croatians call this all-encompassing relaxation fjaka.
4. Pretoogjes (Dutch)
Have you ever met someone whose expression made you feel like you were in on a joke, without even knowing what the joke was? You might say they had a twinkle in their eye, which the Dutch call pretoogjes, or “fun eyes.”
5. Sólarfrí (Icelandic)
In Iceland, employees are sometimes granted an unexpected day off to enjoy a warm, sunny day. Though sun holidays might be uncommon in the U.S., we’re well-acquainted with the nameless joy of unexpected freedom—many people experience it when their social plans get canceled.
6. Tarab (Arabic)
“Musically induced ecstasy or enchantment.”
Though the specific songs, emotional reactions, and reasons behind those reactions may vary from person to person, being moved by music is a universal experience—even babies sometimes cry when they hear certain songs. In Arabic, this sense of losing yourself in the music is called tarab.
7. Sprezzatura (Italian)
Often, as in the case of a ballerina’s grand jeté or Johnny Depp’s unruly lock of hair in 1990’s Cry-Baby, seemingly effortless grace is only achieved by years of practice (or gobs of hair gel). The ability to make something look so beautifully careless through careful study is known as sprezzatura in Italy.
8. Mamihlapinatapai (Yagán)
“A look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire.”
A glance exchanged between two people who share a desire but are each hoping the other will make the first move is so full of nuance and complexity that we unsurprisingly haven’t come up with an English word to describe it. The Yagán people of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and Chile did not have a similar issue—they named it mamihlapinatapai.
9. Etterpåklokskap (Norwegian)
Mistakes, however dumb they may make us feel in the moment, are one of the best ways to learn and grow. Etterpåklokskap perfectly describes the grounded, enlightened feeling you get when you know exactly how to handle a situation because you’ve seen it (and screwed it up) before.
10. Engelengeduld (Dutch)
The saint-like grace with which mothers react to just about everything that their kids do, from spitting up on their new blouses to throwing tornado-level temper tantrums in supermarkets, definitely deserves a special term. The Dutch call it engelengeduld.
11. Orka (Swedish)
“Requisite energy for a task.”
Completing a task isn’t always just about having enough physical energy for it—you also have to care enough to actually expend that energy. You might have orka to throw a surprise birthday party for your best friend, but you might not have orka to study for a quiz that probably won’t affect your final grade.
Reprinted with permission from TarcherPerigee. Get a copy of Happiness—Lost in Translation for $13 from Amazon.
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