Are you happy? It’s an impossible question, according to one scientist, who has made a global study of the words that define our upbeat moods.
‘The trouble with “happiness” is not that it means nothing, but that it means too much,’ says Dr Tim Lomas, whose vigorous attempts to be happy have ranged from singing in a ska band to teaching English in China. ‘We use the word to cover a host of positive feelings, from trivial hedonic sensations to our most profound experiences.’
The solution, he believes, is to categorise and define the different ways of being happy. And to do that, we need more words than English alone can supply.
Dr Tim Lomas, a lecturer at the University of East London, scoured the world to compile a Happiness Dictionary
Dr Lomas, a lecturer at the University of East London, has scoured the world to compile a Happiness Dictionary, listing more than 100 terms from A to Z — from the easiest to enjoy (abbiocco, Italian for ‘that pleasant drowsy feeling that follows a good meal’) to the most challenging (zanshin, the Japanese art of remaining relaxed yet alert in the face of danger).
Here are some to inspire you, not only to feel happier, but to be able to give that feeling a name, because somewhere in the world there’s a word for it . . .
In a more civilised era, the English were famous for taking a tea break at four o’clock. The Swedes must be twice as civilised because they down tools and pick up a coffee mug twice a day.
Mid-morning and mid-afternoon, they leave their screens and workbenches to share the communal coffee break or fika. These get-togethers are not impromptu, but happen with Swedish efficiency, on schedule, at 10am and 3pm. Managers encourage the practice, since it helps staff to get to know each other.
The scientist said it was impossible to explain if you were happy in the English language (file photo)
The Greeks have a tradition of hedonistic celebration and debauchery dating back thousands of years to the cult of the ancient god of wine, Dionysius. Worshippers would drink and dance themselves into an ecstatic frenzy.
This is the spirit of kefi and it still imbues Grecian revelries, especially when the sun goes down on another blissfully hot Mediterranean day.
There are versions of kefi all over the world. In Africa, it’s known by the Swahili verb mbuki-mvuki, which means to shed your clothes in drunken abandon while dancing. Such delirious happiness comes at a cost, though, not least a thumping headache in the morning.
In the Zen tradition, broken crockery is not thrown away but repaired, with gold lacquer applied over the cracks, highlighting their unique pattern. This technique, kintsugi, is both beautiful and practical, but it has a deeper purpose: teaching students of Zen to be proud of the scars left by life.
A heart that has been broken is more lovely than one that has never known love.
Koi no yokan
We call it ‘love at first sight’, but the Japanese phrase is even more wonderful. It means ‘an intuitive flash on meeting someone new’, the absolute certainty that this is your soul-mate and love is inevitable.
One word in the English dictionary is Koi no yokan, a Japanese phrase that means ‘an intuitive flash on meeting someone new’ (file photo)
Perhaps this is why in English we talk about ‘falling’ in love — it’s as irresistible as gravity.
Strangely, there is an almost identical word in Greek: koinonia, meaning ‘an instant connection with someone’.
It might be a colleague, a neighbour or a stranger: with a word or a glance, you suddenly sense that you’re on the same wavelength.
Even the sound of this word makes you feel good. It’s Danish, and it literally means ‘morning-fresh’ — the joyous sensation of waking after a great night’s sleep, with sunlight streaming through the windows and birds singing. In our frenetic lives, when we are often expected to be on-call day and night, we often skimp on sleep.
We’d be far happier if we enjoyed a good night’s sleep and awoke morgenfrisk. That’s probably easier in the fjords than on a wet Wednesday in Dudley.
The surest way to spread happiness is to share a smile. Goodwill is infectious. And, according to the teachings of Buddhism, one of the most satisfying emotions is the wellbeing we feel when we are happy at the good fortune of others. Mudita is the opposite of bitterness.
An obvious example is the vicarious joy we feel at seeing someone else’s wedding. Cultivate mudita and it’s possible to share anyone’s happiness, even that of a workmate who has won the promotion you wanted for yourself.
Another word is Morgenfrisk, Danish, and it literally means ‘morning-fresh’ — the joyous sensation of waking after a great night’s sleep
Mudita is a difficult emotion to fake. We’ve all seen that tense, brittle smirk which says: ‘I’m pretending to be pleased, but actually I want to kill you.’ There ought to be a word for this too: murdita.
Sometimes the hardest words to say are the easiest to grasp. Turangawaewae is a Maori concept from New Zealand, which literally translates as ‘a place to stand’.
It conjures up the sense of contentment that comes with knowing your place: a piece of land, a home to call your own and a position in your community.
Another tongue-twister is umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, a Zulu phrase usually contracted to ubuntu. It means ‘a person is a person through other people’, or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu once explained it: ‘I am human because I belong.’
Pils, as any beer-drinker knows, is the universal word for lager. Ask a Scot the meaning of ute, pronounced ‘oot’, and it’s obviously ‘out’. So Norwegian word utepils is a lager enjoyed outdoors — in the sun, in a beer garden or at a barbecue. Happiness can be liquid, after all.
Real happiness is found in the ordinary and the everyday. But to fully appreciate our daily lives, we must experience something truly extraordinary — what the Swedes call vidunder.
It can be a natural phenomenon, such as a mountain range, a work of art or the lyrical emotion from music. Whatever the cause, vidunder is the awestruck sensation that life is greater than we comprehend.
The Happiness Dictionary by Dr Tim Lomas (Piatkus Books, £14.99). Order a copy for £11.24 at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until June 18.