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Dr Tim Lomas publishes new book on happiness

Students outside Stratford building

Psychology academic searched the world for ‘untranslatable’ terms which relate to joy and wellbeing

By Lee Pinkerton

The University of East London (UEL) hosted a launch in June for Dr Tim Lomas’ latest book, The Happiness Dictionary.
Dr Lomas scoured the world to compile a list of more than 100 terms which relate to happiness and wellbeing. None of the words translate smoothly into English, and most emphasise values which are important to a particular culture.

He explained, “The trouble with ‘happiness’ is not that it means nothing, but that it means too much. (In English) we use the word to cover a host of positive feelings, from trivial hedonic sensations to our most profound experiences.

“The happiness you feel when you eat chocolate isn’t the same as the happiness you feel when you’re getting married. The differences across cultures are due to the value placed in each of these kinds of happiness.”
“A culture which places a lot of value on family will put a lot of value in the happiness you feel when all your family gathers together, but a culture that values education much more than family will put more value on the happiness you feel when you get a good grade.”

The values in a nation’s culture are reflected in words like ‘abbiocco’, Italian for ‘that pleasant drowsy feeling that follows a good meal’ and ‘zanshin’ the Japanese art of remaining relaxed yet alert in the face of danger.

A lecturer in Positive Psychology at UEL since 2013, Dr Lomas has published numerous papers on topics including positive psychology theory, mindfulness, Buddhism, linguistics, and gender. 
But for the past few years Dr Lomas has devoted his time to researching the area of ‘untranslatable’ words. He believes that untranslatable words from other languages can tell us a lot about other cultures and shine a light on what might be missing from our own.

Dr Lomas said, “It’s the fact that a word doesn’t appear to have an ‘exact match’ in English that makes it so potentially intriguing (and, in common parlance, renders it ‘untranslatable’). 
“Such words pique our interest, and for good reason. They appear to indicate the existence of phenomena that have been overlooked or undervalued by English-speaking cultures.
I was driven by the hope that these words would enrich our understanding of wellbeing – revealing lacunas, and uncovering valuable new psychological constructs and processes.”

In his first research paper on the topic, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2015, he identified 216 words, grouping them under common themes.  But the topic gained widespread media attention and has taken on a life of its own. As a way of expanding his ever-growing list, his website houses his Positive Lexicography project - an evolving index of 'untranslatable' words related to wellbeing from across the world's languages – to which member of the public can contribute.

Dr Lomas said, “Over the last three years the list has grown — aided in part by generous feedback to my website — to over 600 words. Yet it very much remains an incomplete work-in-progress; indeed, out of some 7,000 languages on earth, only 72 are currently represented. 

“As such, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of a deep and mystifying ocean. But even in it its rudimentary state, how fascinating the list is!”
The Happiness Dictionary is out now on Little Brown books 
Dr Tim Lomas’ Positive Lexicography can be located here