Happiness In Spanish Is Just One Way 400 Million People Spread Joy
Updated December 18, 2018
Reviewer Laura Angers
Do you know what happiness in Spanish is? Even if Spanish isn't your first language, chances are, you're exposed to this language. That's because almost 6% of the entire world's population speaks Spanish. And after Chinese, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world.
That means over 400 million people are talking about happiness in Spanish. But they're not the only ones. Happiness is a big topic all over the world. And depending on the language and culture of any given population, the approach to happiness can have a different character.
Today, we're going to explore happiness in Spanish, and also happiness in French, Japanese and Chinese. What can we learn about happiness from these different countries and cultures? How can happiness in French impact our own experience of happiness? Or Japan and China, for that matter?
Happiness In Spanish
The World Happiness Report is a global survey, examining 156 countries and how they rank their happiness levels. The report measures happiness based on variables such as, "income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust, and generosity."
How does Spain rank in the World Happiness Report? Well, it didn't make the top 10. Those places were taken by Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.
But Spain did land in 36th place, and according to the Gallup Positive Experience Index, Latin America is where the world's most positive people live.
So, what is it about Spanish speaking populations that create positive environments and happy people?
One argument is that the propensity toward happiness and positivity is genetic, and may have something to do with the individual's ability to secrete enough of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. But another viable factor is the strong social community that many Latin Americans enjoy.
According to Laura Montenegro, the cultural attaché for Panama, "Family bonds are very strong here, and on Sundays, everyone still gets together. So even when people are struggling, they don't feel alone. We have a very beautiful landscape too, and even in Panama City you never feel too far from nature."
Or, could it be that the Spanish language is a happy language?
In a 2015 study called, "Human language reveals a universal positivity bias," researchers examined 100,000 words across ten different languages. Along with Spanish, the study examined French, Portuguese, German, English, Arabic, Russian, Indonesian, Korean and Chinese.
They collected words from Twitter, song lyrics, films, TV shows and Google Books, just to name a few of their sources. From the collection of 100,000 words, scientists created a list of the 10,000 most common words used throughout these mediums.
Then, they had participants rate each word as either positive or negative. While they concluded that each language was "inherently positive," they did find that Spanish was the happiest language, followed by Portuguese and English. Chinese was the least happy of all.
And according to the messaging app, Viber, Spanish users were the ones who sent the most love-related stickers - even more than France and Italy.
So, what is happiness in Spanish? Felicidad is how Spanish speakers refer to happiness, but it's also a way to say "Congratulations!", too. And where English speakers would refer to an overweight man as having a "Beer Gut," in Spanish speakers use the endearing phrase, Curva de la felicidad.
Is happiness in Spanish a genetic, cultural or linguistic phenomenon? Perhaps it's the combination of all three.
Happiness In Japanese
But why is happiness in Japanese a bit lower? In a thought-provoking article in The Japan Times, entitled, "Definition of happiness in Japan remains a mystery," we read that "We should be thankful for unhappiness; we owe our survival to it. Too much happiness in our primate state would have doomed us to extinction in the struggle against less happy, more alert competitors."
It goes on to say that "Even today, happiness in excess would blunt our resilience."
Suffice it to say, if this is the general approach to happiness or 幸福 (kōfuku) in Japan, it's safe to say they don't put a very high premium on it. Instead, they see happiness as a threat to equilibrium and survival.
Instead of overdoing it with possessions, stuff, and experiences, having just enough is about all the happiness they can handle before it's no longer satisfying.
Perhaps this is the catalyst for Mari Kondo's international bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up - a book that encourages you to declutter to live a lighter and more joy-filled life.
Perhaps, one could say that happiness in Japanese is about less rather than more. And that seems to be the gist of this Japanese proverb, 遊び人暇なし, or Asobi-nin hima nashi.
It translates to "Pleasure seekers have no free time." Perhaps trying to accumulate happiness is a waste of time, whereas living in the present moment with what you have is a surer gateway toward feeling happy.
Happiness In French
Happiness in French translates to bonheur, which when you break it down is bon, or good, and heur, or hour/time. So, happiness in French literally means good times.
Bonheur is also a very common word in French. In fact, it's "one of the 4,000 most commonly used words in the Collins dictionary" in the last decade.
But what does happiness en français look like? And are they just talking about it, rather than feeling happy?
According to the World Happiness Report, France sits in 23rd place (13 places above Spain), and it also ranks pretty high in the Gallup Positive Experience Index, scoring a 76.
But despite these numbers and France's many perks, including free health care, medicine, and education, the French are generally dissatisfied with their quality of life. But why is this?
In an interview last year, French professor, economist, and author of The Economy of Happiness, Claudia Senik, shares that since the 1970s - when data first started being collected about French people and how they rate their happiness and life satisfaction - researchers have noted that dissatisfaction and the propensity to complain is a nationwide problem.
This is surprising when you consider that the quality of life can be quite good in France. In fact, Senik observed that when you ask Belgians to rate their happiness and life satisfaction in France, they rate everything much higher, even though they were evaluating the same things as the French did.
But happiness in French isn't a lost cause, in fact, it seems to be growing. Senik confirms that life satisfaction is now an important objective for the French government. What's more, there's also a growing wellness industry centered around improving people's mindset, with practices like yoga, mindfulness, and meditation taking root in French societies.
What About Chinese Happiness
In the World Happiness Report, Chinese ranks at 86, and also scores a 76 in the Gallup Positive Experience Index. However, despite the fact that China has seen exponential economic growth in the last 25 years, the Chinese don't appear to be any happier for it. In fact, they appear to be less happy than they were back in 1990.
So, what did Chinese individuals lose even though their GDP rates rose? This 2017 report shares that it may be because many Chinese families no longer feel safe when it comes to job security or future employment opportunities.
And in 2012, when a TV program set out to conduct random interviews to ask Chinese people one simple question, "Are you happy?", the responses gave some idea of happiness in Chinese societies.
Many of the individuals who were interviewed appeared to be confused, suspicious and surprised at the question. Does that mean happiness or 幸福 (Xìngfú) doesn't exist in this great country?
Not necessarily, it's important to remember that Chinese and Americans think about happiness in very different contexts. For example, this study found that happiness in Chinese is about harmony, whereas Americans see it as a more individualistic experience.
Another difference is that Americans tend to see happiness in external things, but Chinese individuals find happiness internally. Another thing to remember is that Americans estimate happiness as the "ultimate value," whereas Chinese people don't put as much emphasis on happiness.
So, even though reports show us a country that ranks pretty low in happiness levels, perhaps we're comparing apples to oranges and need to remember that happiness in Chinese may not be the same as it is in Spanish, French, English or even Japanese.
Happiness In Latin
So far, we've seen that happiness is prevalent in Spanish. We've also seen that happiness in Japanese is all about balance. Too much happiness and you're in trouble.
The French are a bit grumpy, but they're interested in exploring happiness. And the Chinese have a very different definition of happiness than Americans, which may explain why they score lower on reports and surveys.
But what else can we learn about happiness? What about happiness in Latin - an ancient tongue that still infuses modern languages today?
You might not realize that Latin words are pretty commonplace in English. For example, here are just eight ways we use Latin all the time:
- e., or id est, which means "that is"
- etc, or et cetera, which means "and the rest"
- Bona fide, which means "in good faith"
- Vice versa, which means "position turned"
- Carpe diem, or "seize the day"
- Cum laude, meaning "with praise"
- Alma mater, or "nourishing mother"
- Quid pro quo, i.e., "something for something"
As you can see, Latin is still very relevant even though it's no longer spoken. But how does happiness in Latin fit into modern life?
Happiness in Latin translates to beatitudinem, and perhaps the first thought that comes to mind are the eight beatitudes, as outlined by Jesus in the Bible (Matthew 5:1-10)
Here are the eight beatitudes:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
After reading through the eight beatitudes, you might conclude that happiness comes from living a virtuous life: from being meek and merciful to acting in virtuous ways, like being a peacemaker or suffering persecution.
In a way, happiness in Latin combines both the American and Chinese take on happiness. For Chinese individuals, happiness was about internal development. And the beatitudes encourage people to cultivate virtues. This is inner work.
For Americans, it was about accomplishing and achieving certain things, and likewise, the beatitudes could be seen as a call to action.
So, perhaps you could argue that the beatitudes make room for both a Chinese and American perspective on happiness. And that by doing certain things, you cultivate virtues or qualities that can create a happy experience.
But beatitudinem isn't the only way we can say happiness in Latin. Happy also translates to laetus and felix, or felicis. And these words describe being happy, cheerful, joyful and glad. Experiences that our English word, "felicity" describes, too.
And since Latin-infused all romance languages, including Spanish, it comes as no surprise that happiness in Spanish, felicidad, is derived from this ancient Latin word, Felicis, which brings us right back to where we started in the first place.
Many centuries have passed since the time the Ancient Romans spoke Latin. But it's clear that even though the meaning and search for happiness sometimes evade us, happiness has always been a subject that traverses different times, as well as different cultures and societies.
Whether you're talking about happiness in Spanish, or happiness in French, one thing's for sure; we're all talking about it and maybe even finding it, too.