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Untranslatable emotions: How cross-cultural vocabulary can enrich our wellbeing

“It’s almost like each one is a window onto a new landscape”, says psychologist Tim Lomas on discovering words for wellbeing that lack an English translation. The value of positive lexicography is that it offers us ways of experiencing the world that were previously hidden from us.

Learning untranslatable words of emotion can therefore improve our wellbeing by providing fresh perspectives to our existence. Let’s see exactly how the vocabulary of different cultures plays a role in wellness, and review some of our favourite concepts.

Linguistic relativism: Language shapes thought

Before diving into the value of these culture-specific enriching words, we must understand the relationship between language and thought. Some researchers believe in linguistic determinism, which posits that language “inextricably constitutes and constrains thought” (Lomas, 2016: 4). Some argue that this hypothesis risks demeaning some cultures and fetishizing others, and the world actually looks the same in any language.

A slightly weaker version is linguistic relativism, endorsed by Lomas and most anthropologists, which claims that language shapes our thoughts and experiences. While simply explaining what a certain untranslatable word means can never replace experiential familiarity of the concept, the complex idea can still be universally understood. But how does this process relate to wellbeing?

Emotional granularity: Nuance improves wellbeing

Let’s imagine you’ve been working on a highly stressful project for a long time and the project has finally finished. How do you feel? Happy? Is that nuanced enough to capture the specific type of happiness, which is tinged with relief and accomplishment? In Gaelic, there’s a word ‘suaimhneas croi’ which refers to the happiness encountered after a task has been finished.  

Without the word that encapsulates our experience, many feelings pass us by. As Lomas beautifully writes: “Life is just a great diffused river of sensations and stimuli.” It can be difficult to grasp every feeling, but a label allows us to revel in all emotions, trivial and grand. Learning these “lexical powerhouses” therefore means our emotions no longer go unexpressed.

The upshot of distinguishing between distinct feelings is what psychologist Lisa Barret (2016) calls “emotional granularity”. Labelling our emotions with a high degree of precision and specificity has several benefits for our wellbeing:

  1. Diverse emotional concepts at our fingertips don’t simply help us identify our emotions better; they allow our brain to construct more finely tailored emotions.
  2. This provides us with a refined toolbox for handling life’s challenges as we’re more agile at regulating our emotions.
  3. Learning about different emotions can make us feel less isolated and allow us to communicate our feelings to others.
  4. We become more open-minded, which has demonstrable benefits for cognition, decision-making and wellbeing.

Ambivalence: The understated importance of positive and negative emotions

Ambivalent emotions are mixed emotions comprising both positive and negative elements. An example of an untranslatable word that evokes opposing emotions is ‘mono no aware’ – a Japanese term that captures the beauty and sadness of impermanence, such as cherry blossom. Research suggests that ambivalence increases judgment accuracy, because it involves conflicting perspectives, as well as creativity by allowing people to draw unusual connections between concepts.

A series of studies also suggests that simultaneous emotions are linked to wellbeing. Psychologists have discovered that experiencing ambivalence can help people cope with distressing events.  This is because negative emotions are assimilated into meaningful narratives which then fosters resilience.  Moss and Couchman (2012) even found that co-activation of positive and negative feelings can buffer the effect of stress, and therefore prevent burnout.

According to Lomas (2017), there are 5 groups of untranslatable words relating to ambivalence:

  1. Hope – e.g., ‘iktsuarpok’ (Inuit): the anticipation and impatience felt when frequently going to check if a person you are waiting for has arrived.
  2. Longing – e.g., ‘hiraeth’ (Welsh): acute longing for a home-place or time to which you cannot return and without which you are incomplete
  3. Pathos – e.g., ‘weltschmerz’ (German): a deep sadness about the inadequacy of the world.
  4. Appreciation of imperfection – e.g., ‘wabi-sabi’ (Japanese): acceptance of transience and imperfection.
  5. Sensitivity to mystery – e.g., ‘yugen’: an awareness of the Universe that triggers emotional responses too powerful for words.

Kamwell’s favourite untranslatable words for wellbeing

So, what are some of our top cross-cultural words pertaining to wellbeing? From Lomas’ list of 216, we’ve narrowed it down to the following:

  1. ‘dadirri’ (aboriginal Australian): inner deep listening and quiet, still awareness, a spiritual skill based on respect.
  2. ‘saper vivere’ (Italian): the art of living well, the ability to handle people and situations with charm, diplomacy and verve.
  3. ‘ubuntu’ (Bantu): I am because we are, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity.
  4. ‘jugaad’ (Hindi): cobbled together, a flexible approach to solve a problem.

Untranslatable words, particularly those embodying ambivalence, can give a voice to an otherwise “un-conceptualized ripple in the on-going flux of subjective experience” (Lomas 2016: 5). We encourage people to be curious about how other cultures talk about their wellbeing, because here lies the key for a more enriching emotional experience.

 

References:

Barrett, Lisa Feldman. 2016. Are you in despair? That’s good. The New York Times [online] Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/05/opinion/sunday/are-you-in-despair-thats-good.html?_r=0 Accessed on 3rd January 2021.

Larsen, Jeff, Hemenover, Sscott, Norris, Catherine & Cacioppo, John. 2003, ‘Turning adversity to advantage: on the virtues of the coactivation of positive and negative emotions’, in Lisa Aspinwall & Ursula Staudinger (eds.), A psychology of human strengths: perspectives on an emerging field, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 211–26.

Le Cunff, Anne-Laure. Untranslatable words and your well-being. Ness Labs [online] Available from: https://nesslabs.com/untranslatable-words Accessible on 2nd January 2021.

Lomas, Tim. 2016. Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology 11(5). 546-558.

Lomas, Tim. 2017. The value of ambivalent emotions: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology.

Moss, Simon & Couchman, Grace. 2012. 2012. The conflict between the interventions that prevent burnout and the culture of modern capitalism: the benefits of ambivalent emotions. The Australasian Journal of Organisational Psychology 5. 13–24.

Reese, Laura, Rothman, Naomi, Lehavy Reuven & Sanchez-Burks, Jeffrey. 2013. The ambivalent mind can be a wise mind: emotional ambivalence increases judgment accuracy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49(3). 360–367.

Samuel, Sigal. American happiness is plummeting. Could a few words change that? Vox [online] Available from: https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/11/13/20953899/how-to-be-happy-positive-psychology-mindfulness-language Accessed on 2nd January 2021.

Steinmetz, Katy. How learning new words could make you happier. Time [online] Available from: https://time.com/5265277/learn-new-words-be-happy-translation/ Accessed on 2nd January 2021.

Watt Smith, Tiffany. 2015. The Book of Human Emotions. Profile Books: London