Tim Lomas, a lecturer in applied positive psychology at the University of East London, attended a conference on at Walt Disney World last year, where he attended a lecture on the Finnish concept of sisu, a word for the psychological strength that allows a person to overcome extraordinary challenges. The word has no real equivalent in English; it connotes both determination and bravery, a willingness to act even when the reward seems out of reach. The presenter, Emilia Lahti, proposed that sisu is not a uniquely Finnish trait, but the Finns had coined a term for it. Intrigued, Lomas wondered if there were other words in foreign languages for positive experiences, so he began researching. In January, he published the Positive Lexicography Project, an online glossary of untranslatable words, which originally included 216 expressions from 49 languages.

Reporting on the glossary in The New Yorker, Emily Anthes  writes that since January, additions have been made by online viewers, so that the list of words now numbers more than 400. They are divided into three main categories: words for character, which is how sisu is classified; words relating to feelings; and those describing relationships. Linguists believe that culture, and even geography, determines language to a certain extent—northern climates have many words for feeling snug and cozy inside, like koselig (Norwegian), mysa (Swedish), hygge (Danish), and gezellig (Dutch—all of which convey both physical and emotional comfort, while southern ones have more words describing outdoor activities.  Studying a culture’s emotional vocabulary can help us understand how its people experience the world. Lomas says that this includes the “things that they value, or their traditions, or their aesthetic ideals, or their ways of constructing happiness, or the things that they recognize as being important and worth noting.”

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Some foreign words or expressions are already commonly used by English speakers, such as the word nirvana, or bon vivant, and many of the terms that Lomas has collected here have tremendous appeal. Like sisu, they are useful as inspirational concepts.  A list of some of the interesting ones follows:

Heimat—German, “deep-rooted fondness towards a place to which one has a strong feeling of belonging”

 Mamihlapinatapei—Yagán, “a look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire”

 Queesting—Dutch, “to allow a lover access to one’s bed for chitchat”

 Dadirri—Australian Aboriginal, “a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening”

Fēng yùn—Mandarin Chinese, “personal charm and graceful bearing”

Ilunga—Tshiluba, “being ready to forgive a first time, tolerate a second time, but never a third time”

Utepils—Norwegian, “a beer that is enjoyed outside . . . particularly on the first hot day of the year”

Mbuki-mvuki—Bantu, “to shed clothes to dance uninhibited”

Tarab—Arabic, “musically induced ecstasy or enchantment”

Gigil—Tagalog, “the irresistible urge to pinch/squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished”

Aware—Japanese, “the bittersweetness of a brief, fading moment of transcendent beauty”

Lomas hopes that by promoting this glossary of words he can help shape language in a positive way. “If you just put them out there and people are aware of them, then—almost like linguistic natural selection—people will find ones that appeal to them, and they might start using them,” he said. Certainly this list reminds us that there are many different ways to be happy and to express gratitude and joy.

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  • Wendl in Manhattan June 14, 2016 at 8:12 am

    What a fun column, and I love the Japanese word “aware”. Being half-Finnish myself, I was raised by a mother who valued “sisu” above all other traits and always exhorted me to call upon my heritage to overcome obstacles.

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