Can you teach yourself to be happier?

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Are you happy – or are you joyful, thrilled or simply just contented? Training yourself to see the subtle details of emotional experience can give everyone a lift, discovers Brigid Moss

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By Brigid Moss on

Do you ever feel as if other people are feeling more than you? When, for example, looking at a sunset, a friend starts to quote an amazing poem? Or your bookclub discussion about the characters’ relationship goes right over your head?

There is a chance you simply might not be interested. If you don’t go into ecstasies at, say, a video of a kitten in a box, you might just be a dog person. But it could also be that you haven’t got the words – the mot juste or perfect phrase – to describe the nuances of how you feel.

There’s a psychology theory called “emotional granularity”, which says there are hundreds of subtly different ways to feel happy – for example, you could be thrilled, blessed, giggly, joyful, calm, excited. And some of us are able to feel more of these than others. “It’s the idea you can sift your emotional experience into finer-grained qualities and categories. Instead of generically saying, 'I feel happy or I feel sad,' name different types of feelings within those broad feelings,” says Dr Tim Lomas, positive-psychology lecturer at the University of East London. We all vary widely in this ability, he says. 

The theory is the more you can be aware of and understand experiences in detail, the more helpful it is in your wellbeing

But the good news is, he adds, that it’s a skill you can get better at. “It’s not wrong to say you’re happy, but joyful, contented, relaxed or ecstatic are all different types of happiness. The theory is the more you can be aware of and understand experiences in detail, the more helpful it is in your wellbeing.” It’s like comparing, say, someone who just likes music and the depth of enjoyment of someone who’s studied it.

One way to increase your emotional granularity is via the arts, particularly poetry and fiction. “If a writer comes to some kind of existential truth, put eloquently it can touch people’s hearts and speak to them,” says Dr Lomas. And, he says, self-reflection can help, too, as can keeping a diary or talking deeply about emotions.

For the past few years, Dr Lomas has been working on a project that could be a big help. When his paper on foreign-language words to describe different types of happiness went viral in 2016, he began to collect more so-called “untranslatable” emotional words. His resulting book, The Happiness Dictionary, is subtitled "Words from around the world that to help us live a richer life".

There has been a trend for this in publishing – hygge from Sweden (which I still have no idea how to pronounce), as well as Ikigai from Japan and Sisu from Finland. But Dr Lomas’ collection of words is a lovely thing to leaf through. He says thinking about each word might help you understand yourself better, remember a feeling, work out what contributed to that feeling or learn how to recreate or cultivate it. Or, you might simply have a feeling of recognition – that other human beings have felt strongly enough to name what you are feeling. For example, when I first read the Tagalog word "gigil", which means “the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished”, I felt I’d been missing it my whole life.

Here are some of the words Dr Lomas collected that we’re definitely missing in English, to help you increase your emotional vocab.

ABBIOCCO (Italian) “The soporific drowsiness that can follow a meal, especially a large one.”

CYNEFIN (Welsh) “Haunt, habitat; a place where one was born and/or feels at home.”

FERNWEH (German) “Longing for the unknown; yearning for distant places. Lit. far pain.”

FRIMOUSSE (French) “A sweet or cute little face.”

GULA (Spanish) “Gluttony, greed; indulgence; eating simply for the taste (ie not to satisfy hunger).”

KILLIG (Tagalog) “Sensation of butterflies in the stomach during interactions with a loved one or object of desire; exhilaration and elation, not necessarily romantic. Lit. shaking or trembling.”

KOI NO YOKAN (Japanese) “Premonition or presentiment of love; the conviction, on first meeting someone, that falling in love is inevitable.”

MBUKI-MVUKI (Swahili) “To shed clothes in order to dance; possible root of the phrase “boogie-woogie”. Lit. to take off in flight (mbuki), to dance wildly (mvuki).”

MORGENFRISK (Danish) “Feeling rested after a good night’s sleep. Lit. morning freshness.”

MORKKIS (Finnish) “A moral or psychological hangover; post-hoc embarrassment or shame at one’s drunken behaviour as well as dread or confusion about what one might have done.”

ONSAY (Boro) “To pretend to love.”

PERTU (Hungarian) “Drinking or bonding ritual that signifies the establishment or the maintenance of a friendship. Lit. by/for you.”

RESFEBER (Swedish) “The sense of excitement and nervousness experienced by a traveller prior to undertaking a journey.”

TARAB (Arabic) “Singing, chanting; musically induced ecstasy or enchantment.”

WABI SABI (Japanese) “Imperfect, weathered, aged, rustic beauty; the aesthetics of impermanence and imperfection.”

The Happiness Dictionary by Dr Tim Lomas, available now


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