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Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being

by Tim Lomas The MIT Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 240 pages
AU$64.99 NZ$65.21
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Western psychology is rooted in the philosophies and epistemologies of Western culture. But what of concepts and insights from outside this frame of reference? Certain terms not easily translatable into English - for example, nirvana? (from Sanskrit), or agape (from Classical Greek), or  turangawaewae (from Maori) - are rich with meaning but largely unavailable to English-speaking students and seekers of wellbeing. In this book, Tim Lomas argues that engaging with "untranslatable" terms related to well-being can enrich not only our understanding but also our experience. We can use these words, Lomas suggests, to understand and express feelings and experiences that were previously inexpressible.


Lomas examines 400 words from 80 languages, arranges them thematically, and develops a theoretical framework that highlights the varied dimensions of wellbeing and traces the connections between them. He identifies three basic dimensions of well-being -- feelings, relationships, and personal development -- and then explores each in turn through untranslatable words.  Ananda, for example, usually translated as  bliss, can have spiritual associations in Buddhist and Hindu contexts;  kefi in Greek expresses an intense emotional state -- often made more intense by alcohol. The Japanese concept of  koi no yokan means a premonition or presentiment of love, capturing the elusive and vertiginous feeling of being  about to fall for someone, imbued with melancholy and uncertainty; the Yiddish term  mensch has been borrowed from its Judaic and religious connotations to describe an all-around good human being; and Finnish offers  sisu -- inner determination in the face of adversity.


Expanding the lexicon of well-being in this way showcases the richness of cultural diversity while reminding us powerfully of our common humanity. Lomas's website, href="">, allows interested readers to contribute their own words and interpretations.


I loved reading this book! Translating Happiness is generative in every sense of the word. The quest of Lomas to map well-being words from across the world and explore lexical gaps generates new insights, new methodologies, and new theories in psychology. The researcher in me geeks out at the scientific process used by Lomas, and the mother, wife, and friend in me melts at the shared humanity gained through his cross-cultural lexicography.

Lea Waters, Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne; President, International Positive Psychology Association

Lomas has done an admirable job of comprehensively discussing the importance of examining untranslatable words in order to enrich our understanding of the nature of well-being across cultures.

Ethan A. McMahan, Associate Professor, Western Oregon University
Tim Lomas is a Lecturer in Positive Psychology in the School of Psychology at the University of East London.