Harnessing the world's vocabulary to expand your experience of happiness

Tim Lomas is the creator of The Positive Lexicography Project, a collection of roughly 1,300 words from 120 languages. Each word captures a unique experience of well-being that doesn’t have a direct English translation. If you learn the word, can you access the feeling?
Translating Happiness is a non-fiction book by British researcher Tim Lomas. (The MIT Press, Submitted by Tim Lomas)

It started with a single word: sisu.

This unique Finnish term doesn't have an English equivalent. It roughly translates as "extraordinary courage and determination in the face of adversity."

Tim Lomas was introduced to sisu by fellow researcher Emilia Lahti at a conference in 2015. It got him thinking about other words that are specific to their language — especially ones that describe abstract experiences or concepts.

The Italian word abbiocco, for instance, describes drowsiness after a large meal. Or, the Japanese kintsugi, which is the practice of repairing broken pottery not by covering the cracks, but by highlighting this history of brokenness with gold lacquer.

Lomas's curiosity snowballed into an online project that he calls The Positive Lexicography. It's a collection of over 1,300 words that span about 120 languages, all of which relate to well-being.

He's also written a book, Translating Happiness, which explores how this massive cross-cultural vocabulary can help us create a more universal understanding of wellness.

Lomas thinks of language as a map that can help us navigate our experiences.

"There can be two ways in which this map can be useful," Lomas told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

"It can invite us to reflect more deeply on what's currently happening to us, where we currently are or what we're currently feeling. The second aspect is that it tempts us to visit new regions, new lands.... It draws your attention to this thing that you haven't noticed before and can be a portal to it."

The project has raised all kinds of questions for Lomas, including whether or not language can really convey all the nuances of a person's experience.

Take, for example, this simple sentence: I'm drinking a cup of coffee. If you are speaking to someone who has never tasted coffee before, can you precisely explain what it is like?

"Some words, I can hear them and then hear the description and I have no idea what that signifies. I have not had that experience," said Lomas.

"Strictly speaking, experiences can't be conveyed in words.... Nevertheless, I think if you have a word for a particular type of experience, it can make it more real, more vivid and you can articulate it and conceptualize it and think about it and discuss it."

One of the terms Lomas connected with right away was the Swedish mångata.

"It's the path of the reflection of the moon on a body of water. It means 'moon road' or 'moon path,'" said Lomas.

"It's a lovely word that we don't have in English. If someone gets a look, there it is and you can just point to it. It's relatively easy to see and understand what that refers to."

People from all over the world have submitted words and definitions to The Positive Lexicography Project.

At just 120 languages, Lomas says he's barely scratched the surface.

"Every language is such a precious resource," he said.

"It encodes the values and traditions and histories of a culture and of a people. When you hear about other languages dying out and fading away, that seems such a loss to humanity."