Tim Lomas


On his book Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being

Cover Interview of February 27, 2019

In a nutshell

Translating Happiness celebrates the idea that untranslatable words – terms without an exact equivalent in our own language – can expand our emotional, intellectual, and even experiential horizons. Such words represent phenomena or ideas which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture, hence the lack of a specific signifier. Crucially though, they have been identified and labelled by another culture, from whom we can learn. These words therefore have the potential to help us better understand and articulate our experiences, providing us with new linguistic tools to make sense of our world. They can even reveal new phenomena, which had previously been veiled to us, pointing us towards realms of life which we had not before noticed.

The book is based on an on-going lexicographic research project, initiated in 2015, to collect and analyze untranslatable words. To limit its scope to a manageable area of enquiry, the project’s focus is on wellbeing, specifically. This is because I am a researcher in positive psychology, which is essentially the scientific study of wellbeing. The lexicography currently comprises over 1,000 words, many of which have been crowd-sourced through generous contributions to a website I created to host the project. My analytical approach to these words has been to explore and organize them thematically. I have identified six main categories, each encompassing many different themes. These are positive emotions, ambivalent emotions, love, prosociality, character, and spirituality. Together, I treat these categories and themes as offering a comprehensive ‘map’ of wellbeing.

The book covers the regions of this map in detail, delving into the various categories and themes by analysing a selection of untranslatable words encompassed within them. The book also looks more generally at the role of language in ‘mapping’ our experience, and the significance of untranslatable words in that respect. In doing so, it also reflects critically on the viability and validity of transposing words and ideas from one cultural context to another. Overall though, it advocates for the idea that cultures can develop and evolve (and always have) by learning from each other. In that respect, the book argues that ‘we’ – readers personally, the field of psychology, and English-speaking cultures more broadly – have much to learn from the ideas and insights developed across the globe.