On ‘Happiness,’ A Muddy Word For A Muddy Feeling

You know that feeling you get when you’re at dinner with friends — or maybe it’s someone you’re just getting to know — and excited talk of great books or new movies carries on long past the scrounging up of your meal’s last crumbs?

In Spanish, it’s called sobremesa, but in English there’s no direct translation. It’s a little like eagerness, a little like a comforting exhale, but Americans are likely to equate it to something broader: happiness.

A recent study in The Journal of Positive Psychology revealed that, relative to other languages, English is starved for emotionally positive words, relying instead on one big descriptor to articulate everything from simple pleasures to the glee experienced when the workday ends.

The problem with letting happiness do all of our verbal dealings is that, according to some psychologists, the experience of a feeling is often understood through the words we use to describe it. So, if our language lacks a specific word, we’re less likely to experience the specific feeling attached to it.

This is a pretty good case for expanding our vocabularies beyond a single catchall adjective. Not only could we derive more pleasure from activities like the Norwegian utepils (“drinking beer outside on a hot day”), but we might be less likely to appraise the ups and downs of most long-term relationships on such a restrictive scheme: happy versus unhappy.

English is starved for emotionally positive words, relying instead on one big descriptor to articulate everything from simple pleasures to the glee experienced when the workday ends.

The first time I fell in love, I wasn’t happy. Not exactly.

I was sitting on the floor of a friend’s dorm room talking with unjustified assertiveness about the likely outcome of the 2008 Republican primaries when I was interrupted by a brazen neighbor. Overhearing —> Read More

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