What Other Cultures Can Teach Us About Well-Being
The narrative in the media seems overwhelmingly conclusive: Scandinavian nations (usually Denmark) are the happiest in the world!
Many of these headlines are based on the results of the World Happiness Report, an incredibly detailed global survey of well-being. It is extremely enticing to believe that, somewhere out there, there are people who have it all figured out. They know the true secret to happiness, and if we just encode their ways and systems and replicate it for our own, that state will be ours. Unfortunately, there are many potential issues that arise in our attempts to research happiness, ones that researchers themselves are apt to point out but consumers of research are likely to ignore. One core challenge is that it is extremely hard to measure happiness: we must often rely on self-report mechanisms, where we ask someone "How happy are you?", thus making ourselves reliant upon the individual's perception of what it means to be happy. Another challenge arises in a global context, which is that the word happiness is a highly-Anglo concept that is not often translatable to other cultures.
In an analysis of Danish happiness, the linguist Carsten Levisen explores these two issues in detail, arguing that Danish people do not actually think about happiness the way that the Anglo world traditionally does, and thus are not answering the same question as those in other countries might be. He argues that this survey neglects to incorporate this nuance of local life, and that we must pay greater heed to the language that arises within unique cultural contexts as a way of better understanding the well-being of that place.
A recent paper by Tim Lomas from the University of East London attempts to do just that. Lomas presents a lexicon of 216 'untranslatable' words, documenting words from cultures around the world in order to help us expand our limited Anglo conception of happiness and to guide us in our pursuit of new experiences. I have cherry-picked some of my favorite words from this paper (including some from Scandinavia!), highlighting ways in which you might choose to expand your own conception of what it means to feel good and live well.
This Danish word has been translated by Carsten as 'pleasant togetherness' and by Lomas as a type of coziness that includes emotional and existential warmth and intimacy. You can get hygge by being cozy at home and creating a comforting, safe space, surrounded by other people and usually a bunch of candles and blankets.
A French word which describes a leisurely walk through the streets of your city, often with no agenda or destination in mind. It is characterized by a sense of possibility and adventure. Those who engage in this activity are called flâneurs. When was the last time that you went off on a walk with no goal in mind?
The Nguni Bantu people use this word to express the idea of loving others based on our shared common humanity. As a cultural value, it helps to inspire an awareness of the communities that we belong to and our participation within them. In many modern countries, we have lost a sense of community as we move towards greater self-reliance. Workplaces and organizations that offer a sense of belonging can offer us greater meaning in our lives, with the chance to feel the ways in which we are supported and offer that same gift to others.
This is the Swedish term that delightfully describes the act of 'waking up early with the purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing'. Nature is a powerful ally to our well-being. There is a term - biophilia - which describes the natural connection that humans have to nature. Studies have found that being near plants decreases cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure and depression.
In reflecting on these untranslatable words, we can see clearly just how much we might learn from cultures that are not our own. We become immeasurably richer by these different perspectives, gaining a new understanding of how we might cultivate our selves and engage in our lives. I, for one, am going to make a priority to try to wake up with the birds some time this week.