How Languages Reflect a Culture’s Idea of Happiness
Linguists argue that the way different cultures experience joy depends on what words they have to describe it.
There’s a lovely Croatian word that pops to mind as an antidote to stress. Fjaka. It roughly translates into “the sweetness of doing nothing.” As poet Jakša Fiamengo says, fjaka is a state of mind of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Imagine locals at cafés nursing a cup of coffee for hours or shop keepers taking an afternoon siesta. “And no one questions it because you don’t disturb someone who’s on fjaka,” journalist Felicia Arhontissas rightly points out.
This brand of wellness captures the world of slow living, but it has limited translations. Only those who understand fjaka at a visceral level can enjoy it.
The connection between happiness and language is not unheard of. Different metrics of happiness — such as meaning, purpose, self-acceptance, and social engagement — are all embodied in the vocabulary one uses. “Happiness is not primarily a measure of whether one laughed or smiled yesterday, but how one feels about the course of one’s life,” Jeff Sachs, co-creator of the World Happiness Report and a professor at Columbia University, told CNBC.
On a macro level, language echoes how a culture understands and defines happiness. This also means that other cultures may have concepts of well-being that are drastically different from ours. In his book, Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being, linguist Tim Lomas argues that people might be missing insights about joy just because they express them in languages we don’t.
Lomas told the New Yorker that words are “things that they value, or their traditions, or their aesthetic ideals, or their ways of constructing happiness, or the things that they recognize as being important and worth noting.” A culture’s emotional vocabulary then exists as a unique lens into how its people see the world.
Our cultures indubitably shape our experience of happiness. For instance, some cultures frame happiness as a fatalistic concept. In languages such as Polish, Russian, German, and French, an essential part of happiness is the idea of “fate” or “luck,” a divine gift of sorts. Researchers note such views are no longer present in countries like the U.S., where happiness has more to do with individual achievements.
The Nordic countries deserve mention in laying claims to happiness. “They’re not societies that are aiming for all of the effort and time to becoming gazillionaires, they’re looking for a good balance of life, and the results are extremely positive,” Sachs said. This formula is reflected in their language too. Sample mysa in Swedish or koselig in Norwegian that translate to a physical and emotional idea of coziness. On the other hand, Southern European languages are tied to the emotional succor derived from experiencing the outdoors — like flâner in French. The concept of hygge, the Danish word for coziness and well-being, has become a cultural heritage and happiness brand.
This also tacitly impacts how cultures approach happiness. People believe that the Chinese think less often about how happy and content their lives are compared to the Americans. A study showed Japanese people associate joy with social harmony, the transient nature of happiness. “…individuals are averse or fearful of happiness, based on their convictions that misfortune often lurks behind joy,” Psychology Today noted.
The Japanese word aware reflects a sense of hesitation. It means “the bittersweetness of a brief, fading moment of transcendent beauty.”
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The pursuit of happiness, thus, has a linguistic and cultural bent to it. The degree of this connection is widely debated among linguists. One school of thought is along the lines of language determinism, arguing that if we lack a word for a positive emotion, we are less likely to experience it. “And even if we do somehow experience it, we are unlikely to perceive it with much clarity, think about it with much understanding, talk about it with much insight, or remember it with much vividness,” The New Republic explains. A slightly weaker understanding of this theory is that of linguistic relativity. It agrees that language itself shapes our thoughts and perceptions but is not the only force behind shaping it.
An interesting example is the Finnish word sisu, whichreflects the psychological strength to overcome challenges even when the reward is out of reach. The English equivalent could be grit or perseverance, but it doesn’t come close to depicting the depth. A speaker “suggested that this has been valued and valorized by the Finns, and it was an important part of their culture… sisu [is] universal human capacity—it just so happened that the Finns had noticed it and coined a word for it,” writer Emily Anthes noted in The New Yorker.
The consensus seems to be about the link between vocabulary, culture, and happiness. The curious thing about languages is that they may not have words to define some emotions in some cultures. We can also understand this through the idea of “emotional granularity.” Some words don’t quite match up to the feeling of the moment.
Journalist Sigal Samuel cites a thought example in Vox: “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.” This granularity is recorded in Hebrew; the word for feeling overt pride in someone’s success is firgun.
Just because our language may not have an equivalent of it doesn’t mean the emotion is lost. How does one characterize the uninhibited joy of drinking beer on the first hot day of the year? The Norwegian word for this is utepils. Or the irresistible urge to squeeze someone to show they are cherished? The Philippine language Tagalog calls this gigil. The inventory of life’s joys is not limited to one language, one culture.
The pursuit of happiness is elusive. It is one we all aspire and work towards, but one that is hard to characterize. Yet, understanding other culture’s ideas of well-being may even help shape our own.
Lomas summarizes the power of these lexical wonders: “They let us see how other cultures parse their experiences, offering us more options for how we might understand and live ours.”
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.