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Language and Cross-cultural Well-being

written by Marta Velázquez 4 August 2016

Marta Velázquez Gil is a psychologist and researcher. She has published research in scientific journals and both national and international congresses. Her biggest interest is research on cultural terms and its relation to wellbeing. Within this topic, her major passion is Sisu, a Finnish term for the fortitude and spirit which enables people to push through unbearable challenges. Marta's articles appeared here originally on the Spanish language site. Translations into English appear here.

Editor’s Note: This article was initially published in Spanish on the Spanish language site for Positive Psychology News as Bienestar Transcultural y Lenguaje: El Proyecto de Lexicografía Positiva. It was translated into English by the author, who edits and translates articles from English into Spanish for the Spanish language Positive Psychology News. Thank you, Marta.

Ikigai is Japanese term meaning ‘the reason to be’ or ‘the reason to live’ and thus affirms the belief that life is worth living. Apparently, ikigai is a common term for what English speakers might call subjective well-being. It combines purpose and meaning with connotations of joy about being alive. In one study, Shirai and colleagues found that finding one’s own ikigai was related to subjective well-being and satisfaction with life. In another study, Sone and colleagues found that ikigai was related to increased longevity.

Although ikigai refers to a concept deeply rooted in Japanese culture, the belief that life is worth living is universally understood. Ikigai is one example of words that create new realities, enrich our human experience, and expand our knowledge about what well-being means in other cultures. Chris Peterson, one of the most revered figures in the field of positive psychology, wrote:

“The notion of ikigai is a good reminder to positive psychologists in the United States that our science should not simply be an export business. There are lessons to be learned in all cultures about what makes life worth living, and no language has a monopoly on the vocabulary for describing the good life.”

One of the criticisms related to empirical work within positive psychology is the tendency to universalize results. Since much of the work in this field took place in Western countries, there is concern that the resulting concepts of well-being reflect a bias towards Western ways of thinking. However, researchers have not been unmindful of these critiques, resulting in greater levels of cross-cultural sensitivity reflected in studies that explore the variation in how cultures relate to well-being.

In order to increase this growing intercultural sensitivity, the study of emotional vocabulary of different cultures is breaking new ground.

The Positive Lexicography Project

Is it possible that understanding the concepts of joy and well-being from other cultures can help us to give a new shape to our own? According to Lomas, the study of emotional vocabulary of a culture may provide a window into how its people see the world: the things they value, their traditions, the way they build happiness or things they recognize as important.

Lomas has launched The Positive Lexicography Project, an on-line glossary that includes words that do not have a literal translation into other languages. The fact that these words do not have translations reflects the idea that such words identify phenomena that have only been recognized by specific cultures. That is why such words offer windows to other cultures, and therefore potential new ways of being in the world.

The objective of this project is to develop a more intercultural vision of well-being and enrich our understanding of it. Another more ambitious objective is to help to expand the emotional vocabulary of speakers of all languages and thus enrich their experiences of well-being. To this end, it is expected that psychologists use this glossary as a starting point for further research.

Categories of Untranslatable Words

Lomas has grouped into three broad categories the 216 untranslatable words found so far. These categories are:

  • Feelings. This section includes two categories: positive feelings and complex ambivalent feelings.

    In the group of positive feelings we find a spectrum of words that belong to positive affect. Among them, we find me yia (?? ????; Greek), which is a blessing of good health for others; and suaimhneas croi (Gaelic), depicting a state of happiness encountered specifically after a task has been finished.

    Complex ambivalent feelings are expressed in words that refer to feelings that are a dialectical mixture of positive and negative states of mind, but that have associated feelings that somehow are integral to life, as if one could not live fuly without being able to experience them. This group includes the word belum (Indonesian) which means ‘not yet,’ but with an optimistic tint that an event might yet happen. Also, in Korean we find hahn (?), a culturally important term expressing sorrow and regret, yet also a quiet sense of waiting patiently in the hope that the adversity causing the sadness will eventually be righted.

  • Relationships. This section also includes two categories: intimacy and pro-sociality.

    Intimacy includes words that cover close relationships of varying strengths, from friendship to the most intense feelings of love. In Greek the word philotimo (????????), translated as ‘friend-honor,’ can be understood as respecting and honoring one’s friends. In Japanese we find nakama (??), a word for friends who one effectively considers family and has developed deep platonic love for. Also, in Urdu, naz (? ??) ) is the assurance and pride one can feel in knowing that the other’s love is unconditional and unshakable.

    In the pro-sociality category, well-being is seen as a social phenomenon, arising out of harmonious connections with others and the world around. In Nguni Bantu we find the word ubuntu, that refers to the culturally valued notion of being kind to others on account of one’s common humanity. Also, related to kindness are a swathe of words articulating the value of empathy and compassion, such as karuna (?????) in Sanskrit, and koev halev in Hebrew.

  • Character. In this final section, the notion that the well-being not only involves positive feelings and relationships that nurture us, but the development of what we might call “character” is reflected. This section is divided into two categories: resources and spirituality.

    The resources category refers to the attributes related to perseverance and grit. The Finnish term sisu falls into this category, and is defined as an extraordinary determination in the face of adversity. There are also terms that capture the ability or willingness of the person to persevere through tasks that are difficult or even just boring, including að nenna (Icelandic) or sitzfleisch (German). Also, the Arabic term sumud (????) translated as steadfastness, describes a determined struggle to persist.

    The spirituality category expresses the idea of a soul, some inner essence, that reflects the truest, deepest core of a person. This category include the Russian word duša (????), which refers to one’s inner heart and soul; or the Arabic word fitra ( ? ??? ), an innate purity and closeness to God. Also, in Hindi we find ?tman (??????), that refers to the breath or spirit. In Hinduism, the atman is regarded as identical with brahman (????????), the all-powerful and pervasive power that continually creates the universe.

Future Perspectives

This work of lexicography can expand our understanding of the construction of cross-cultural well-being and enrich our experience of it. Incorporating ideas from other cultures can help fill gaps in our vocabulary so that we can name those subjective experiences that are difficult to articulate.

For my part, I choose the Japanese word wabi-sabi, which means to see the beauty within the imperfections of life.



Anthes, E. (2016). The Glossary Of Happiness. The New Yorker.

Becker, D., & Marecek, J. (2008). Dreaming the American dream: Individualism and positive psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(5), 1767-1780. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00139.x. Abstract.

Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1127993. Abstract.

Lomas, T. (2015). Positive cross-cultural psychology: Exploring similarity and difference in constructions and experiences of wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), 60-77. doi:10.5502/ijw.v5i4.3

Peterson, C. (2008). Ikigai and Mortality. Psychology Today.

Shirai, K., Iso, H., Fukuda, H., Toyoda, Y., Takatorige, T., & Tatara, K. (2006). Factors associated with “Ikigai” among members of a public temporary employment agency for seniors (Silver Human Resources Centre) in Japan; gender differences. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 4(12). http://doi.org/10.1186/1477-7525-4-12

Sone, T., Nakaya, N., Ohmori, K., Shimazu, T., Higashiguchi, M., Kakizaki, M., et al. (2008). Sense of life worth living (ikigai) and mortality in Japan: Ohsaki Study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(6), 709-715. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e31817e7e64 Abstract.

Photo Credits:
Ikigai card from an article on Uplift

Rest of images via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
How big is your world? courtesy of Daniel Orth
Typography Design courtesy of Cultural Infusion
Group of friends courtesy of hepingting
No Fun, No life courtesy of Phey

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Judy Krings 8 August 2016 - 11:14 am

Dear Marta, Thanks for expanding my universe re: The Positive Lexicography Project. How wonderful to learn how other countries understand and language emotion and experience. Though I have been blessed to joyfully travel the world and to be in awe of the wonders, you have reminded me that seeing the world is vastly different from feeling and sitting into the rich and textured cultures. I am humbled by my new learning here. Thanks much.

Marta Velázquez Gil 21 August 2016 - 12:20 pm

Dear Judy,

Thank you for your beautiful comment. I’m happy you found this article helpful. It’s deeply gratifying to me to stretch the human experience of well-being through words. I hope these words can help to expand the realms of our language and thinking, and thus, exceed ourselves beyond our perceived boundaries.

Best wishes,


Katie Snyder 23 August 2016 - 10:20 am


I co-lead the continuing education webinar series for the University of Pennsylvania MAPP alumni group. I would love to talk with you about presenting your work, as some logical point for you, to our alumni community….now some 400 graduates. Please email me so we can connect and discuss.


PS I love you investigation into unique cultural impact to flourishing!

Marta Velázquez Gil 25 August 2016 - 5:07 am

Dear Katie,

Thank you for this opportunity. I will send you an e-mail these days if you provide me an e-mail to connect and discuss with you. Anyway, this is my e-mail if you want to write to me directly: martavelazquezgil@hotmail.com



sona 29 August 2016 - 3:03 am

Dear Marta
Thank you so much for sharing this article . my mother language isn,t education language here in Iran. I can help you about language, because my MA thesis is about bilingualism and cognition. Thank you again.

Marta Velázquez Gil 5 September 2016 - 8:54 am

Dear Sona,

Thank you for your comment. I find interesting your study on language. Let’s connect so that you can explain me more about your thesis. You can write me here: martavelazquezgil@hotmail.com

With joy,



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