Tim Lomas


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

Cover Interview of February 27, 2019

A close up

The book offers, using a cartographic metaphor, a ‘map’ of wellbeing. In that respect, I don’t have a particular preference for which ‘region’ I would hope a reader first encounters. People differ in their tastes and interests, and as a result will naturally be drawn to particular realms of experience. So, I’d invite readers to dive right into the area that intrigues them the most, be this positive emotions, ambivalent emotions, love, prosociality, character, or spirituality. Of course, there is a certain sequential form to the book. The first chapter in particular sets out the groundwork for the narrative as a whole, as it introduces the concept and significance of untranslatable words, and their role in helping augment our maps. However, the chapters can and do stand on their own terms, and so do not have to be read in sequence. Follow your heart, and embrace whichever territory calls out to you most!

The text allows us to drill down into given topics. In the chapter dealing with spirituality, for example, I suggest that across the wealth of words developed in this arena, these fall into three main broad themes: conceptions of the sacred, contemplative practice, and experiences of self-transcendence. This thematic analysis then gives rise to a broad conceptualization of spirituality that may hold across traditions, namely, engagement with the sacred, usually through contemplative practice, with the ultimate aim of self-transcendence.

Furthermore, in the subsection on self-transcendence, I focus quite heavily on Buddhism, since this tradition features strongly in my lexicography – mainly due to personal interest in it, having tried, imperfectly, to develop a Buddhist practice over the last 10 years, but also because Buddhism has developed especially detailed theories of self-transcendence. Below, then, is a sample of text in which I start to introduce one particular Buddhist theory and practice of self-transcendence. In the book I then go into more detail about this theory and practice, before concluding the chapter with another segment of text on the broader significance of self-transcendence, which is also included below.

One representative approach is that of the five skandhas. Translatable as “aggregates” or “heaps,” this term refers to the corporeal elements of the person, substances such as flesh and bone, and processes such as circulation and respiration. By reflecting on these elements in meditation, the practitioner may “deconstruct” her conventional notion of self. The idea is that one comes to appreciate that Buddhist ideas of anātman (no-self) and anitya (impermanence) apply to oneself, and so the immutable self is an illusion. This is not to deny that people actually exist, nor to nihilistically claim that people do not matter, but rather to recognize that the self is an ephemeral mental construct. Similar ideas have been propounded by Western philosophers such as David Hume and William James, who understood the self as an aggregation of successive qualia or “stream of consciousness.” In practice, one reflects on the five skandhas in order to better understand how each, arising in sequence, generates the experience of self.


Deep appreciation of the skandhas enables one to see through one’s self-construct and consequently be liberated. This outcome is called sūnyatā. Although often translated as “emptiness,” sūnyatā captures the subtler idea that all phenomena, including the self, are conditional, dependent on conditions and subject to change. As the Heart Sutra memorably puts it, “Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form.” A person who attains a deep understanding and appreciation of sūnyatā attains enlightenment.

As a final point, some have suggested that sūnyatā would be better translated as openness, boundlessness, or boundarylessness. These terms reflect the notion that human beings tend to perceive, categorize, and experience the world by imposing boundaries on it. This is exactly what languages do, carving up existence into distinctive spheres of experience. This book has made the case that our understanding of life can be enriched if we see how other languages have segmented the world. By doing so, we can refine our maps, adding finer-grained boundaries. Yet, as these forays into Buddhist teaching suggest, we might do even more than refine our maps. By recognizing the constructed nature of our imposed boundaries, we may come to realize that they are useful illusions, that there are no absolute boundaries. This is the essence of sūnyatā: the promise that liberation comes from seeing through the boundaries we have created.