In 2015, University of East London psychologist Tim Lomas encountered the Finnish word sisu, which means something like extraordinary determination in the face of adversity. The word has no direct analog in English, but it describes a universal human trait — an English speaker who learns it can more easily recognize and appreciate sisu in herself and others, which enriches her life.
Lomas began collecting similarly specific words that describe positive feelings:
- Desbundar (Portuguese) – to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun
- Tarab (Arabic) – a musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment
- Shinrin-yoku (Japanese) – the relaxation gained from bathing in the forest, figuratively or literally
- Gigil (Tagalog) – the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished
- Yuan bei (Chinese) – a sense of complete and perfect accomplishment
- Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived
Northeastern University neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says that learning to make fine distinctions in identifying one’s feelings increases “emotion granularity,” which has real benefits — people with a rich emotional vocabulary recover more quickly from stress and are less likely to drink alcohol. Yale psychologist Marc Brackett, who has seen similar benefits among children, agrees that Lomas’ word list could help people to identify and appreciate their positive feelings. “The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives.”
Lomas’ list now numbers more than 400 words — you can browse them here.