Have you ever experienced Tarab – "a musically induced ecstasy or enchantment"? Or what about the strong urge to Gigil – "the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished"? How about Desbundar – "shedding one's inhibitions in having fun"?
These are very precise emotional experiences taken from Arabic, Tagalog, and Portuguese cultures. And if you are wondering what equivalent word do we have in the English language for these emotional experiences, we don't. But thanks to Tim Lomas from the University of East London, we might soon.
The Positive Lexicography Project by Lomas in the hope of giving us a richer and more successful life experience aims to identify and cultivate bittersweet emotions while capturing their essence of good feelings found across the globe. Many emotion words such as "frisson" from French, "schadenfreude" from German and the likes, have been borrowed from different languages and have their place in the English vocabulary but there is still much more that we haven't warmed up to yet. Lomas has been successful at finding hundreds of these "untranslatable" experiences and the best part is - he's just begun.
Lomas hopes that including these words into our daily lives would offer us all a more nuanced understanding and a richer life experience. "They offer a very different way of seeing the world."
Lomas was intrigued and inspired when he heard a talk on sisu, a Finnish concept, a sort of "extraordinary determination in the face of adversity" that according to the Finnish speakers, the English words "grit", "perseverance" or "resilience" did not come even close to capturing the feeling that their native term resonated with. The inner strength encapsulated by this term had no direct or easy English equivalent so it was kind of "untranslatable".
It was then that he began this journey of hunting for more examples, perusing the academic literature, and prompting all his foreign acquaintances to dig out exemplary emotion words in their language. The results were first published last year in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
Most of the lexes published refer to explicit positive feelings that are subject to specific circumstances.
Other terms symbolize more complicated and bittersweet experiences that can be quite critical to our overall progression.
Personal characteristics that might establish our well-being in the long term and how we interact with others are also defined in Lomas's lexicography.
His website has hundreds of examples and an opportunity where you can submit your own word. Many of the explanations are only a rough interpretation of the lexes' actual meanings. "The whole project is a work in progress, and I'm continually aiming to refine the definitions of the words in the list," says Lomas, "I definitely welcome people's feedback and suggestions in that regard."
Lomas sincerely hopes that in the near future other psychologists may show more interest in this subject and explore the reason and the effects that these experiences have. Until now, researchers have only been limited to the understanding of emotion in the English concept.
It's not only for scientific reasons that Lomas wants other psychologists to study these terms. He strongly feels that learning and knowing these words might be able to transform the way we feel because we could now focus on fleeting sensations that we have always overlooked.
Lomas further says, "In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there's so much to process that a lot passes us by. The feelings we have learned to recognize and label are the ones we notice – but there's a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we've only dimly noticed."
Lisa Feldman Barret at the Northeastern University has already shown that our power to distinguish and characterize our emotions has wide-ranging effects and it is to this work that Lomas points as evidence.
Lisa observed that some people use altered emotion words while some are detailed oriented and this is what inspired her research. "Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad," Lisa explains. "For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them."
"Emotion granularity" is the term used in this experience, and to measure the experience she asks her participants to continuously rate and share their feelings every day for a few weeks. Then, she calculates the distinctions and changes based on their reports, for instance, why do the same old words always concur.
Lisa found that if you are able to pin down your exact emotion, then there is a better chance for you to decide how to deal with those feelings. For instance, if you are anxious, you would know whether talking to a friend or watching a funny movie is better for you. Or you might identify hope in a desperate situation and look for a new solution for the old problem. More importantly, through this research, Lisa has found that our experiences to identify our feelings show how well we get through life.
In this regard, emotion vocabulary is kind of a directory, call up as many strategies to deal with situations. And people who are high on emotion granularity are better able to deal with stress and less likely to be addicted to alcohol. Besides, a high score on emotion granularity can even help you academically. This was found by Marc Brackett at Yale University, describing that teaching a richer vocabulary to 10 and 11-year-olds improved their overall grades and stimulated their behavior for the better. "The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives," says Brackett.
Both Lisa Feldman Barrett and Marc Brackett agree on the fact that Lomas' "positive lexicography" could be a heads-up by encouraging to identify the finer outlines of our emotional landscape. "I think it is useful – you can think of the words and the concepts they are associated with as tools for living," says Barrett. We too might get inspired to seek new experiences, or even appreciate the previous ones.
Lomas would like to research and explore more in this direction, but in the meantime, he is still busy with his ongoing lexicography that has nearly reached a thousand terms. But amongst the thousand odd words, it is the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi ("dark, desolate sublimity") that Lomas often ponders over. "It speaks to this idea of finding beauty in phenomena that are aged and imperfect," says Lomas. "If we saw the world through those eyes, it could be a different way of engaging in life."