A Global Dictionary of Happiness

How different is the aloha spirit from joie de vivre? This global primer will help you find joy in any language.

A Global Dictionary of Happiness

For many nations, happiness is found in nature.

Photo by everst / Shutterstock

Happiness. Contentment. Joy. We all know what it means, and how it feels—not to mention how it doesn’t (hi, 2020!). But how to achieve it? That’s bothered philosophers from Aristotle to Oprah.

There are dozens of ways to find happiness globally. It could be as simple as doing nothing in Italy, or finding beauty in the passing of time in Japan, or just drinking in your underwear in Finland.

This global primer will help you find joy in 15 different ways—all different cultural pursuits of happiness.

Aloha (Hawaii)

Translation: Love, affection

How the Hawaiians do it: Hawaii regularly tops lists of the happiest states in the U.S.—and much of that can be attributed to the spirit of aloha, or “being in the presence of and sharing the essence of life,” as Go Hawaii defines it.

“While I wouldn’t say that aloha translates directly as ‘happiness’ in Hawaiian, I would say that both words are layered and tangentially related in their interpretations,” says Charity Yoro, a poet who grew up on Oahu. “Aloha is both a greeting and a farewell, an expression of love for a person/people, as well as for the land (aloha‘āina). And the origin of aloha—ha being breath, life—calls to mind the Buddhist perception of happiness as equanimity. Happiness as temporal and enduring as breath.”

How to practice it yourself: As Go Hawaii puts it: “The spirt of aloha teaches us lessons of peace, kindness, compassion, and responsibility to future generations.”

Azart (Russia)

Translation: Taking chances; ardor

How the Russians do it: Helen Russell, who wrote one of the books on happiness, The Atlas of Happiness: The Global Secrets of How to Be Happy, told AFAR that azart means a “burning urge to lunge at everything life throws your way, to take chances, no matter the consequences. . . . There’s also a hint of suffering involved, the idea that you will suffer for your pleasure.” We’re talking sweating in humid bathhouses or engaging in intense vodka-fueled conversations.

How to practice it yourself: As Russell explains, you’re looking for a combination of excitement, risk-taking, and suffering. “It’s not a comfy, cozy kind of feeling. [It’s] more like you feel really alive.” One tip: Do like the Russians and avoid small talk in favor of posidelki, or “kitchen talks,” more meaningful conversations. Try that with an argumentative uncle at Thanksgiving if you really want to feel alive.

Russian contentment is also related to community spirit. Its word for happiness—schastyeis etymologically different from the Western notion. As one translator notes: “In English, ‘happiness’ originates from the Old Norse happ or ‘good luck.’ This implies that a happy person is someone who has had a good fortune. In Russian, schastye stems from the noun chast’, ‘a part.’ Thus, in Russian, to be happy means to be part of something [bigger].”

For the Italians, happiness is found in pleasant idleness or dolce far niente.

For the Italians, happiness is found in pleasant idleness or dolce far niente.

Courtesy of Martin Mecnarowski / Shutterstock

Dolce far niente (Italy)

Translation: The sweetness of doing nothing

How the Italians do it: They slow down and enjoy the moment. “We live in a world where we feel like we constantly have to keep busy,” Roman food tour operator (and author of The Sweetness of Doing Nothing: Live Life the Italian Way with Dolce Far Niente) Sophie Minchilli told AFAR recently. “The more our schedules fill up, the more we feel important and purposeful. . . . Italians have a different approach to life. They have figured out a way of being in the moment with such joy and blissfulness that they don’t need to ‘look forward’ to anything else.”

How to practice it yourself: Find at least 10 minutes a day to stop and pause. Grab a copy of Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness. Or don’t, if that feels like too much hard work. Minchilli’s tips for achieving dolce far niente during lockdown were:

  • Make a schedule
  • Get some exercise
  • Take a technology break
  • Chat with friends
  • Cook something

Fika (Sweden)

Translation: Time out to eat and socialize

How the Swedes do it: They stop what they’re doing and grab a coffee with friends. “Swedish fika is about comfort and mys [the Swedish word for coziness], especially during days like these with the pandemic,” says Filip Åkerblom, CEO of coffee roastery and café Lilla Kafferosteriet in Malmö, Sweden. “It is a cheap way of spoiling and treating yourself with sweets and coffee to keep the spirit and mind on a positive path.”

How to practice it yourself: Put the kettle on and shut the laptop. Fika is “bonding, coffee, chat, cake—being with [your] nearest and dearest,” adds Stockholm resident Abbie Connors.

Friluftsliv (Norway)

Translation: Outdoor living, or outdoor activity

How the Norwegians do it: Even when temperatures plunge to Northern Westeros levels, Norwegians ensure they’re getting outside. In fact, the snow, wind, and rain seem to add to the pleasure, as if connecting to the elements requires giving yourself an icy lashing. Norway is home to an embarrassment of perspective-altering landscapes—craggy mountains, beautiful fjords, and wild oceans—which makes roaming outdoors all the more rewarding.

How to practice it yourself: You may or may not live next to a remote wilderness or a waterfall steeped in myth, but you can replicate some of that friluftsliv almost anywhere. Mere minutes among trees with a phone left at home can help; a recent study found that a 90-minute walk in nature (as opposed to an urban environment) delivered lower levels of negative self-thought and a decreased level of activity in the prefrontal cortex, where anxiety and stress live.

Gemütlichkeit (Germany)

Translation: Coziness, contentment

How the Germans do it: Gemütlichkeit is a bit like hygge, a feeling of warmth and well-being, perhaps best exemplified by a Glühwein in a Christmas market—but it doesn’t require booze or snow. It’s also often used to describe cozy rental homes—but it’s not just about place, either. It’s a feeling conjured by an environment, within a group of people finding a contented stillness.

How to practice it yourself: You can gather favorite items in a snug spot and shut out the digital world, but you’ll still need to slow your mind down to achieve peak gemütlichkeit.

Gezelligheid (The Netherlands)

Translation: Conviviality, community, fun

How the Dutch do it: Gezelligheid is another somewhat nebulous term, but it’s essentially about good times as a group—or, as AFAR’s Chris Colin defines it: “cozy conviviality.” Dutch citizen Willemijn Pfeifer told Culture Trip that, to her, it’s “talking and laughter and people having fun together.”

How to practice it yourself: Gezelligheid, Colin says, “emphasizes homey atmospherics: Pillows. Old postcards on the wall. Cat in your lap. The recipe is ever refinable. Soft, warm lighting can nudge things toward the gezellig. A long winter outside the door helps. The right music helps. Pace helps, too—the slow living trend is de rigueur here.”

Take time for family, whether in socially distanced person or via Zoom. However, Pfeifer warned that “a situation is only truly gezellig if everyone feels relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings.” So maybe lay off politics or religion when you do meet up.

Hygge (Denmark)

Translation: Comfort or coziness

How the Danish do it: The primary principles of hygge are atmosphere, presence, pleasure, gratitude, and togetherness—savoring the simple pleasures that bring joy. “I think the best short definition of hygge is the art of creating a warm atmosphere. It is about finding comfort in togetherness, relaxation, and simple pleasures. A shelter in a turbulent world—and I think that is what we all need these days,” says Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute and a New York Times best-selling author about happiness.

How to practice it yourself: Giving thanks isn’t just for Thanksgiving. Find a favorite pair of pants (hyggebukser) and a cozy spot (hyggekrog) and really be present and grateful as you indulge in the small pleasures.

Joie de vivre (France and French Canada)

Translation: Joy in life, ebullience

How the French do it: The familiar French term dates back several hundred years (and was the title of an 1884 novel by Émile Zola), and the French are pretty practiced at it by now, with coffee, croissants, and other clichés supplementing a lifestyle that includes some of the highest number of paid time-off days in the world. The Canadians have mastered joie de vivre, too—via ice hockey and canoe sex, apparently.

How to practice it yourself: A recent (albeit observational) study from University College London found that “the maintenance of positive wellbeing . . . [was] systematically related to subsequent mortality.” The happier live longer. Find things that spark joy, whether a new hobby or, when you’re able to, travel.

Finland frequently tops happiness lists.

Finland frequently tops happiness lists.

Photo by trabantos / Shutterstock

Kalsarikannit (Finland)

Translation: Partying alone

How the Finns do it: It’s “a Finnish way to party by yourself,” say Western Lakeland regions reps Anu Huusko from Visit Lahti, Päivi Heikkala from Visit Jyväskylä, and Minna Gurney from Visit Saimaa. “You don’t have to dress up; your underwear or nightgown is enough. This is also very safe way to party during COVID-19. You can also join with your friends virtually if you don’t want to hang out just by yourself.”

How to practice it yourself: Sign up to a wine delivery service or treat yourself to some early whiskey-related holiday gifts and raise a glass to surviving 2020.

Meraki (Greece)

Translation: Doing something with love and care

How the Greeks do it: As Hunter S. Thompson (and others) have said, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Dr. Myrto Hatzimichali from the University of Cambridge told the Guardian that meraki means “taking pleasure at your work. Doing something with joy, attention to detail, putting the extra mile.”

How to practice it yourself: Meraki could mean putting a bit more effort in at work, or just really leaning into that new hobby or craft project you’ve taken up during the pandemic. You don’t need to be an infamous gonzo journo to find satisfaction in a task well done.

Saudade (Brazil, Portugal)

Translation: Nostalgia; longing for a happiness that once was; happy melancholy

How the Brazilians do it: The Portugese term saudade is another quasi-untranslatable term, but this one is a bit different from the rest. Rather than appreciating what you have, it’s about becoming aware of what you don’t—or never did. According to the Week, Portugese poet Teixeira de Pascoaes defined it as “desire for the beloved thing, made painful by its absence.” Brazilians, meanwhile, consider it—in the words of 1940s writer Osvaldo Orico—“more happy than sad, more imagination than pain.”

How to practice it yourself: Saudade is about realizing what’s important, and finding meaning in life from that, about indulging in a bittersweet nostalgia. In a way, it’s that awareness of what’s not there that drives many of us to travel so extensively.

Sisu (Finland)

Translation: Courage or grit

How the Finns do it: “This is the term for never giving up,” say the Western Lakeland regions reps. “We are living in hard conditions (the weather can be -30 Celsius degrees and there is snow everywhere) and still we are going to work and school as normally. We have a phrase that says, ‘There is no bad weather, there is only bad clothing.’ The Finns have guts!”

How to practice it yourself: Get outside, whatever the weather. Find the right waterproof gear if you need it.

Ubuntu (South Africa)

Translation: “I am because we are”

How the South Africans do it: President Obama brought the concept to a wider audience during a tribute to Nelson Mandela, saying it was “a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.” In Malawi, known as the “warm heart of Africa,” the same concept is known as uMunthu.

How to practice it yourself: Pop your social media bubble, reach out across the aisle, think collectively. Maybe you can increase someone else’s happiness while augmenting your own.

Wabi sabi (Japan)

Translation: celebrating transience

How the Japanese do it: Wabi essentially means “simplicity” and sabi “the beauty of age and wear,” Billie Cohen wrote for AFAR—in other words accepting and celebrating imperfection and transience.

How to practice it yourself: Russell refers to wabi sabi as a “tool to reset ourselves.” While we can’t control external factors that exert stress on us, we can take a moment to rest and recharge. In Japan, that can take the form of forest bathing, so take a walk among your nearest trees or in another kind of natural beauty and take a look around. As Cohen writes, “Observing the changes of the natural world—growth as well as decay—is another way to tune into wabi sabi.”

>> Next: This Is What Happiness Looks Like Around the World

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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