You might think happiness is simply the experience of joy, but have you ever had a positive feeling that you couldn’t quite describe because no English word exists for it? Well even if English hasn’t created a word for that feeling, you can bet another language probably has. Here are just a few of those popular untranslatable words that can widen your understanding of what it means to be happy.
A deep sense of warmth, comfort and contentment
Few untranslatable phrases are as widely known as hygge. Yet, a few short years ago, its delights were scarcely known outside of Scandinavia. Then, suddenly, it was everywhere.
Books usually present it as the key to the enviably high levels of contentment that Denmark – and the other Nordic nations – enjoy, although it is of course more complicated that that. But what exactly is hygge? Well, there is certainly an element of cosiness to hygge. You may be picturing a group of stereotypical blond-haired, blue-eyed Danes, snuggling together under soft blankets next to a flickering wood fire, bathed in candlelight. In that respect, the term reflects its roots in the Old Norse hugga, meaning ‘to comfort’. So, to an extent, hygge speaks to a sense of feeling protected from the vicissitudes of life.
However, the picture is complicated by the fact that hygge is also used in many other scenarios, some of which could never be described as ‘cosy’ – chatting amiably with a friend over coffee, a tender kiss, cycling on a crisp winter’s morning. So perhaps hygge implies feeling warmth ‘in one’s heart’, irrespective of whether the physical environment is snugly. In such precious moments, all seems right with the world. We feel safe and at ease, caring and cared for. If a few blankets, warm socks and candles always generate these sensations, so much the better!
Joie de vivre
Exuberant joy of living
Although France is just a short hop over the Channel, it can feel like a world away. As a child, I spent most of my summer holidays there, and I remember that indefinable je ne sais quoi that suffuses the land and its people. Above all, many of the locals seemed to exude joie de vivre – literally, ‘joy of living’. Indeed, it seems entirely appropriate that the word ‘joy’ is borrowed from our Gallic cousins, given their expertise in cultivating it. And joie de vivre takes this characteristic to an even higher plane – no mere passing delight but something far more durable, a permanent disposition rather than a fleeting mood.
It is useful to think of joie de vivre as the ‘knack of knowing how to live’. Notions such as joie de vivre are often viewed as fixed personality traits: you either have them or you don’t. Admittedly, some people do seem blessed with a generally sunny disposition whereas others are more prone to gloominess. Yet all skills – including joie de vivre – can be practised and honed. For instance, we could all make ourselves happier simply by cultivating gratitude or learning how to savour the moment.
Whenever I look longingly towards France – with its romance, elegance and two-hour lunches – I can’t help thinking they have mastered that ‘knack’ of knowing how to live. The tradition of long, leisurely lunches – as opposed to wolfing down a sandwich alone at one’s desk – isn’t so much an individual personality trait as a manifestation of a whole nation’s appreciation of good food and companionship and their steadfast refusal to be rushed. But the good news is that we can all learn to cultivate a similar attitude and bring more joie de vivre into our lives.
Imperfect, weathered or aged beauty
Western art is often characterised by an obsession with order, symmetry and proportionality. By contrast, Zen paintings can seem wildly irregular, even chaotic, with seemingly crude brushstrokes. But this style is not indicative of a lack of technique. Rather it reflects great artistic skill combined with deep spiritual insight, because such aesthetics are more faithful to the natural world. We rarely encounter perfect symmetry or straight lines in nature: life is usually skewed, imperfect, irregular. The phrase wabi-sabi is used to describe the beauty of aged or imperfect objects, and the depth and meaning they can evoke. Moreover, it expresses the ‘perfection of imperfection’. In Taoism – a formative influence on Zen – it is believed that everything is a ‘perfect’ expression of the natural order of the universe (the Tao), so nothing is incomplete or lacking. This is the beauty of wabi-sabi.
Ultimately, wabi-sabi involves a reappraisal of beauty. We do life a disservice if we only value that which is perfect and complete. As the fourteenth-century monk Kenkō asked, ‘Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, at the moon only when it is cloudless?’ We should not disdain anything for its imperfection but rather respect its unique gifts.
This is an almost melancholic form of appreciation. Yet it helps us make peace with a flawed world.
Extract taken from The Happiness Dictionary by Dr Tim Lomas