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Positive psychology has been critiqued as Western-centric, influenced by the mostly Western contexts in which it has developed. English is its dominant mode of discourse, for example, which has shaped its understanding of its subject matter. To generate a more comprehensive cross-cultural 'map' of wellbeing, the author is creating a lexicography of relevant 'untranslatable' words (without exact translation in English). An initial analysis of 216 words, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2016, identified six main categories: positive feelings, ambivalent feelings, love, prosociality, character, and spirituality. Subsequently, over 1,400 more words have been added to the lexicography to date. As a result, analyses have been published of each category separately, revealing their internal structure. In addition, six further categories have been identified: cognition, embodiment, aesthetics, eco-connection, competence, and understanding. This paper summarises these analyses, and outlines their significance in terms of augmenting the conceptual map in positive psychology.
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Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
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Towards a cross-cultural lexical map of wellbeing
Dr. Tim Lomas
University of East London, School of Psychology, t.lomas@uel.ac.uk
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Abstract
Positive psychology has been critiqued as Western-centric, influenced by the mostly Western
contexts in which it has developed. English is its dominant mode of discourse, for example,
which has shaped its understanding of its subject matter. To generate a more comprehensive
cross-cultural ‘map’ of wellbeing, the author is creating a lexicography of relevant
‘untranslatable’ words (without exact translation in English). An initial analysis of 216
words, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2016, identified six main
categories: positive feelings, ambivalent feelings, love, prosociality, character, and
spirituality. Subsequently, over 1,400 more words have been added to the lexicography to
date. As a result, analyses have been published of each category separately, revealing their
internal structure. In addition, six further categories have been identified: cognition,
embodiment, aesthetics, eco-connection, competence, and understanding. This paper
summarises these analyses, and outlines their significance in terms of augmenting the
conceptual map in positive psychology.
Keywords: cross-cultural; linguistics; translation; cartography; lexicography.
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Introduction
Positive psychology (PP) has been critiqued as Western-centric, as indeed has psychology
more generally (Becker & Marecek, 2008). Like all systems of knowledge, the field is
culturally-situated, influenced in this case by the mainly Western contexts in which it has
historically been formed and developed. For instance, much of its empirical work has
involved scholars and participants described by Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010) as
WEIRD, belonging to societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and
Democratic. As a result, the concepts developed within PP are biased towards ways of
thinking and understanding the world that are dominant in Western cultures, like a North
American tradition of expressive individualism(Taylor, 1986). Yet psychology is often
unaware of its situatedness with its cultural bias constituting a disguised ideology
uncritically regarding itself as psychology in toto (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008). As
such, the field would benefit from greater levels of cross-cultural engagement, awareness,
and understanding. Indeed, such efforts are already underway across the field.
One example is my own initiative, involving the assembling of a lexicography of
untranslatable words i.e., without exact equivalent in English relating to wellbeing. One
aim of the project is to help PP develop an enriched conceptual ‘map’ of wellbeing, featuring
concepts which have been identified in other languages but not in English (and as a result,
have mostly not yet been incorporated into psychology). In the initial paper establishing the
project (Lomas, 2016b), I analysed 216 words, and as a result generated a provisional
thematic ‘map’ featuring six categories, paired into three meta-categories: feelings (including
positive feelings and ambivalent feelings); relationships (including love and prosociality), and
development (including character and spirituality). Subsequently, over 1,400 words have
been added to the lexicography. Analysis of these has provided further detail with respect to
the categories, allowing the elucidation of their internal thematic structure (which was not
identified in the initial paper). In addition, the subsequent analysis has also identified six
further categories (which are still accommodated within the three meta-category structure).
Thus feelings (since renamed qualia) now also includes cognition and embodiment,
relationships includes aesthetics and eco-connection, and development includes competence
and understanding.
This paper offers a summary of this updated analysis. First though, the sections below
highlight the value of this kind of work. The first section discusses cross-cultural variation in
the way people experience and understand the world, drawing in particular on linguistic
differences, and considers the implications that such variation has for psychology. The
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second section then addresses the significance of untranslatable words, arguing that these
signify areas or aspects of the world that one’s culture has overlooked. As such, it is proposed
that psychology would benefit from engaging with such words, as the following subsequent
sections aim to demonstrate.
The Challenge of Linguistic Relativity
Psychology has inevitably been influenced by the cultural contexts in which it has developed
and been practised. In that respect, one might speak of multiple ethnopsychologies across
the globe at varying levels of scale, from the transnational to the subnational. However, over
recent decades, Western ethnopsychology, and specifically American ethnopsychology, has
come to dominate the field i.e., academic psychology as an international endeavour to the
extent that it is often regarded uncritically as psychology in toto (Christopher &
Hickinbottom, 2008). Analysing these power dynamics, Danziger (2002) suggests the prior to
the Second World War were various centres of knowledge and practice, including Berlin,
Cambridge, and Chicago, as well as peripheral locations where such knowledge/practice was
reproduced. However, the post-war economic and military dominance of the United States
meant that American psychology was exported globally, effectively becoming the sole centre,
to the extent that the adjective American soon became erased as superfluous. This has
meant that concepts, ideologies, priorities, and methods associated with American
psychology have come to dominate the international scene. One aspect of this dominance is
that (American) English has become the default language for the field. This means that most
of its ideas and theories are structured around the contours of the English language. This
linguistic bias is an issue, since the knowledge developed within the field is therefore to an
extent provincial and culturally-specific. The significance of this issue can be understood in
terms of the linguistic relativity hypothesis’ (LHR).
The idea that culture, via language, influences thought can be traced back centuries. It
is common to track this line of thinking now known as the LHR at least as far as Herder
(1772), who argued that differences in the mentalities of individual countries derived in large
part from the nature of their language. Entering the modern era, these ideas found their most
prominent articulation with the anthropologists Sapir (1929) and Whorf (1940), to the extent
that the LHR is sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In line with the general
tenets of the LHR, they argued that language plays a constitutive role in the way people
experience and understand life. As Whorf put it, “We dissect nature along lines laid out by
our native languages… The world is presented as a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which
has to be organized… largely by the linguistic systems in our minds” (pp.213-214). Such
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linguistic parsing takes two main forms: grammatical structure and lexical content. According
to Whorf, the most impactful relativity effects pertain to the former, an argument endorsed by
many subsequent theorists (Lucy, 1996). Cultural differences in grammar are thought to exert
a potent effect on cognition and experience, since grammar structures are arguably more
foundational to the mind than lexical frameworks, which fit within the structures provided by
grammar. Nevertheless, cultural differences in lexical content are still significant. Thus, the
key message of the LHR is that language affects the way people experience the world (with
the debates within the LHR literature centring on how and to what extent it does).
The LHR therefore challenges the preconceptions and assumptions of fields such as
psychology, for instance regarding the nature of the self and its relationship with the world.
Or more specifically, one might say it challenges Western ethnopsychology, which despite
being culturally-situated, tends to regard itself uncritically as having universal relevance and
scope. But that challenge need not be regarded as a negative. One can argue that psychology
would benefit from a thoroughgoing engagement with the implications of the LRH. Indeed, it
already has benefitted, with a wealth of scholarship exploring the significance of the LRH in
intersecting paradigms such as cross-cultural psychology (Berry, 2000), indigenous
psychology (Kim, Yang, & Hwang, 2006), and discursive psychology (Quigley, 2001). In
that respect, one fruitful line of enquiry is the study of so-called untranslatable words.
Engaging with Untranslatability
While untranslatability is a contested phenomenon, it commonly refers to a word that lacks
an exact equivalent in a given other language. The value of such words is manifold. First,
they assist in understanding other cultures, offering insights into their values, traditions,
philosophies, and ways of being. The theoretical context here is the aforementioned LRH, the
stronger version of which is linguistic determinism, whereby language inextricably
constitutes thought, whereas the milder relativistic version simply asserts that language
shapes it. In relation to untranslatability, the stronger view suggests that only people from the
culture that produced a word can truly understand or experience the phenomenon it signifies
(Taylor, 1986). However, the milder perspective holds that such words are to an extent
accessible to people outside the culture, holding some universal relevance. This latter point
highlights a second aspect of interest regarding untranslatable words: beyond being
informative vis-à-vis the culture that created a given word, they enrich other lexica. Indeed,
cultures ‘borrowing’ words from each other is central to language development. For instance,
of the more than 600,000 lexemes in the OED, the percentage of borrowed words also
known as loanwords is estimated to be as high as 41% (Tadmor, 2009).
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Of particular interest here is why words are borrowed. Haspelmath (2009) identifies
two main reasons: core versus cultural borrowings. The former is when a loanword replicates
a word that already exists (i.e., with similar meaning) in the recipient language. This tends to
happen for sociolinguistic reasons (e.g., cultural capital associated with using foreign words).
This type of borrowing is not of concern here. However, the latter category is central. This
occurs when the recipient language lacks its own word for a referent (e.g., if a new practice or
idea is introduced to a culture). On this point, Pavlenko (2000) makes a useful distinction
between conceptual and semantic representation: the former refers to any phenomenon that a
human can potentially experience, learn, or understand; the latter concerns whether that
phenomenon has been given a lexical label by a given language. Thus, it is possible that
although a language may lack semantic representation of a certain phenomenon, speakers of
that language may nevertheless have some approximate form of conceptual representation of
it. This may mean, for instance, experiencing and conceptualising a particular emotional
state, even if it lacks a label (and see Pavlenko (2008) for further analysis of the nuances of
cross-cultural differences in emotional representation). In many such instances, the loanword
may be adopted for pragmatic reasons: it is cognitive and socially useful, allowing speakers
to articulate concepts they had previously struggled to. In Lehrer's (1974, p.105) terminology,
such words fill semantic gaps, i.e., “the lack of a convenient word to express what [one]
wants to speak about.” It is such gaps that makes words untranslatable, indicating phenomena
that have been overlooked or undervalued by one’s own culture, but which another culture
has identified and articulated.
Thus, a central premise of my lexicographic project is that such words can enrich the
nomological network in psychology (and English more broadly). As articulated in a
theoretical article outlining the foundations of the project (Lomas, 2018a), one of the main
functions of language is as a form of ‘cartography.’ Language helps people ‘map’ the worlds
they encounter (including both the ‘outer’ external world in which they are situated, and their
‘inner’ subjective world of qualia). However, a key insight of the LHR is that different
languages map these worlds in subtly different ways. For instance, one culture may have
mapped a particular ‘region’ of experience with much less detail than another. This may
happen for various complex reasons, including factors such as climate, geography, and the
values and traditions at play in the respective cultures. One well-known example is the
suggestion that Eskimo-Aleut languages possess many different words relating to snow and
ice (more than in English). The issue is complicated, since such languages are agglutinative,
creating complex words by combining morphemes. Thus, some linguists argue they do not
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possess greater complexity than English, since the latter can use adjectives to similar effect
(Pullum, 1989). However, pragmatically, Eskimo culture is influenced by an environment
dominated by snow and ice in ways that most English-speaking cultures are not. As such,
Eskimo-Aleut languages contain many more relevant words in common usage. For instance,
analysing the North Sami language, Magga (2006, p.25) points out that knowledge of snow
and ice is a “necessity for subsistence and survival,” and estimates over 1,000 such lexemes
in common usage. Thus, compared to English, their lexical map of snow and ice is far more
granular. Then, besides variation in detail, there are other ways in which languages may map
the world differently. For instance, even if their level of complexity vis-à-vis a given
phenomenon is comparable, languages may differ in where they draw their boundary ‘lines,’
thereby segmenting it in subtly different ways. One example is variation in the way different
cultures parse the colour spectrum into discrete colours (Lucy, 1996).
In such variation in mapping can the significance of untranslatable words can be
appreciated. They represent phenomena which have been mapped by another language i.e.,
circumscribed by a boundary, and labelled but which have not been similarly identified in
our own map. Thus, there is considerable potential for refining and enriching our own maps
by engaging with other languages, and particularly by studying their untranslatable words. It
is this goal that animates the lexicographic project, which seeks to apply this potential to
psychology, thereby redressing its Western-centricity. In this way, it is possible to enhance its
map of its subject area, thus augmenting the field’s nomological network, as the next sections
illustrate.
Methods
In the paper establishing the lexicography (Lomas, 2016b), I identified 216 untranslatable
words pertaining to wellbeing through a ‘quasi-systematic’ review of academic and grey
literature (quasi in that there was insufficient material in academic journals to permit a
conventional systematic review). Readers interested in the process are encouraged to consult
this original paper; suffice to say that the search protocol had several elements (including
examining the first 20 websites returned when entering “untranslatable words” into Google).
Once the 216 words had been identified, robust definitions were sought though several
sources, including on-line dictionaries, peer-reviewed academic sources, and bilingual
colleagues. The words and their definitions were then analysed using grounded theory (GT),
a methodology which allows theory to emerge inductively from the data via three main
coding stages (open, axial, and selective). In a process of open coding, the data words and
their definitions were examined for emergent themes, assisted by other GT processes such
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as memoing and initial theorising. Axial coding then involved comparing themes through
constant comparison, and grouping them into categories based on conceptual similarity. Six
categories were produced, paired into three meta-categories: feelings (positive feelings and
ambivalent feelings); relationships (love and prosociality); and development (character and
spirituality). Finally, selective coding saw the identification of a ‘core’ category of wellbeing.
Although applying GT in this way might be deemed unconventional, there is considerable
heterogeneity in the studies purporting to use GT, and it is sufficiently aligned with GT
principles to be considered one such example.
Following this initial paper, the lexicography has since gradually expanded to over
1,600 words, partly through crowd-sourced contributions to a website created to host the
project (www.drtimlomas.com/lexicography), and partly through my own follow-up
enquiries via ‘conceptual snowballing.’ The term snowballing derives from recruitment,
where participants facilitate the involvement of additional people. This metaphor has been
borrowed to reflect the way enquiries into an untranslatable word might lead one to encounter
related concepts. For instance, although 142 languages are currently represented in the
lexicography, many words are taken from a select group that are especially well-studied in
psychologically-oriented literature, including Chinese, French, German, Greek, Japanese,
Pāli, and Sanskrit. Thus, an enquiry into a word from these languages would often lead me to
a text in which related words are discussed (which would then be added to the lexicography).
In adding a word, the same checking procedures were followed as in the initial paper.
Moreover, once words and their definitions had been added, they were accessible on the
website for public inspection and feedback (with people sometimes suggesting a refined
definition of the word), providing a further credibility check (which is valued in GT). This
subsequent phase of data collection cannot be regarded as systematic (not even in the ‘quasi’
sense of the original paper). Indeed, some 7,000 languages exist worldwide, and it is unlikely
that one research project could study them all and retrieve their relevant words. However,
even if the lexicography is a work-in-progress, one may still usefully analyse its existing
words and emergent themes, even if such analyses are incomplete and subject to revision.
Indeed, with the addition of the new words, the thematic structure outlined in the
original paper has been updated. This updating has taken two main forms: (a) the refinement
of the initial categories; and (b) the identification of new categories. With respect to (a), with
the addition of new words to the lexicography, it was possible to undertake a more detailed
GT analysis of the initial six categories. In the initial paper establishing the basic thematic
structure (Lomas, 2016b), I was only able to identify the six categories; there were
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insufficient data to elucidate their internal structure. However, with the subsequent addition
of more than 1,400 words, by once again employing the same GT approach, it was possible to
identify an internal structure for each category, articulating various themes within them.
Thus, with the updated list of over 1,600 words, an initial review of this suggested that each
existing category now included between 100 and 200 relevant words. At the same time, with
respect to (b), this initial analysis of the updated list also suggested various new categories.
That is, although many of the new words could be accommodated within the initial six-
category structure, significant new large clusters of words were also emerging, also featuring
between around 100 and 200 words (bearing in mind that some words can be situated within
more than one category). Thus, in addition to the six existing categories, six new additional
categories also were identified.
Twelve separate analyses were then conducted, one for each category. Having
identified the relevant words for each category, the words were again analysed using the GT
variation developed in my original paper. Once again, the data comprised the set of words
and their definitions. These definitions had been refined and checked in the ways outlined
above (e.g., consulting dictionaries, peer-reviewed sources, and bilingual speakers, together
with website feedback). In the first stage of open coding, the words and their definitions were
examined for thematic content. Next, words were grouped together through constant
comparison into themes, thus producing the internal structure for each category. These
categories, and their internal structure, are elucidated in the section below.
Results and Discussion
As noted above, in the initial GT analysis of 216 words that established the foundation for the
lexicography (Lomas, 2016b), I identified six main categories. With the gradual addition of
over 1,400 new words to date, it has been possible to conduct and publish analyses of each
category separately, revealing their internal structure: positive feelings (Lomas, 2017a),
ambivalent feelings (Lomas, 2017b), love (Lomas, 2018c), prosociality (Lomas, 2018b),
character (Lomas, 2019c), and spirituality (Lomas, 2019a). In addition, the new words have
also led to the identification of six further categories still within the three meta-category
structure as illustrated below in Figure 1. The first meta-category since renamed using the
more-encompassing label of qualia now also includes cognition (Lomas, forthcoming d)
and embodiment (Lomas, forthcoming e). The second meta-category of relationships now
also includes aesthetics (Lomas, forthcoming a) and eco-connection (Lomas, 2019b). And the
third meta-category of development now also includes competence (Lomas, forthcoming b)
and understanding (Lomas, forthcoming c). These categories will be briefly introduced in
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turn, together with some commentary on their significance for the conceptual map of
wellbeing in PP.
For each category, I have constructed a visual diagrammatic ‘map,’ illustrating its
internal thematic structure. Within these figures, I suggest examples of untranslatable words
that relate to each theme in question. Further details of these words and indeed all words
currently included in the lexicography can be found in the supplementary data table
(available at www.drtimlomas.com/lexicography, entitled Lexicography (listed by theme)).
This table organises the words according to theme, and also provides details for each word
including: the language with which it is associated (which, one should note, is not necessarily
the language in which it initially originated, given that it has not yet been possible to conduct
detailed etymological analyses of words included in the project); the grammatical part of
speech it constitutes; a basic pronunciation guide (involving both the International Phonetic
Alphabet, and a rough phonetic spelling); and a basic, non-exhaustive description of some of
the words meanings (given that most words are complex and polysemous).
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Figure 1. Wellbeing
Positive Feelings
In the first meta-category of qualia, the first category is positive feelings (Lomas, 2017a).
Analysis of this category revealed a wealth of positively-valenced feelings, with valence
referring to whether a feeling is experienced subjectively as pleasant (i.e., positively-
valenced) or unpleasant (i.e., negatively-valenced) (see Colombetti (2005) for a more detailed
analysis of the term ‘valence’). Here such feelings cover seven broad overlapping themes, as
outlined in Figure 2 below. There is some parallel here with Ekman's (2019) Atlas of
Emotions project, which deconstructs enjoyment according to a spectrum of intensity or
arousal (although it does not elucidate how this granularity was arrived at). In the present
context, the invocation of terms like ‘arousal’ reflects its use in models like Russell’s (1980)
influential circumplex model of emotions. This framework posits that affective states are
generated through the interaction of two independent neurophysiological systems, valence
(pleasant vs. unpleasant), and arousal (active vs. passive), where the latter reflects the
physiological and/or phenomenological intensity of affective experiences. In the current
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analysis, each theme was labelled using two broad conceptually-similar English constructs
that roughly encompassed the terrain in question. As with all categories, these themes were
not monolithic, but comprised words which each differed in subtle ways. Often the words
denote a more precise phenomenological region than that covered by the English thematic
labels. For instance, jouissance constitutes a specific instance of euphoria, often connected to
sexual activity. Occasionally, the word might occupy a phenomenological region that merely
overlaps with the label headings. For instance, within contentment and satisfaction is the
Danish concept of hygge, which is rapidly becoming known in English-speaking cultures and
acquiring the status of a loanword. While this term does connote contentment/satisfaction, it
also alludes to concepts such as cosiness and homeliness. Overall, the diversity of words
encompassed by this category highlights the limitations of referring generically to ‘positive
affect,’ or even differentiating by high versus low arousal, which is how variation is usually
alluded to in this area (Lee, Lin, Huang, & Fredrickson, 2013). Thus, the analysis points
towards the value of developing a more fine-grained appreciation of the nuances in this area.
Figure 2. Positive feelings
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Ambivalent Feelings
Also in the meta-category of qualia is the category of ambivalent feelings (Lomas, 2017b).
Known also as ‘mixed emotions,’ such affective states blend positive and negative valence,
either simultaneously or sequentially (Carrera & Oceja, 2007). A classic example is longing,
defined as a blend of the primary emotions of happiness and sadness(Holm, Greaker, &
Strömberg, 2002, p.608). Here, five themes were identified (one of which is longing), as
captured in Figure 3. Ambivalent feelings may not usually be associated with wellbeing,
which conventionally has been linked to positive affect. However, scholars are increasingly
appreciative of the value of such emotions, as articulated by the notion of ‘second wave’ PP
(Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016). For instance, emotional ambivalence has been linked to outcomes
such as creativity (Moss & Wilson, 2014) and judgement accuracy (Rees, Rothman, Lehavy,
& Sanchez-Burks, 2013). The words comprising this category tend to be culturally valued as
being linked to flourishing in some way. For instance, in Zen Buddhism, sensitivity to the
pathos and ephemerality of life as reflected in terms like mono no aware is regarded as
integral to spiritual insight (Lomas, Etcoff, Van Gordon, & Shonin, 2017). Other items are
linked to phenomena such as identity, with the concept of saudade for instance deemed a
“key Portuguese emotion” (Silva, 2012, p.201) and “an emotional state that pervades
Brazilian culture and thought” (Feldman, 2001, p.51). This category thus highlights the
importance of expanding our conception of wellbeing beyond simply positively-valenced
affective states to also include ambivalent ones.
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Figure 3. Ambivalent feelings
Cognition
In the second analytic iteration of the lexicography generated by the addition of over 1,400
new words two further categories have been identified pertaining to qualia: cognition and
embodiment. The former essentially covers the psychological dynamics by which qualia are
processed and experienced (Lomas, forthcoming d). Here five main themes emerged, as
illustrated below in Figure 4. Again, considerable granularity is provided by the various
subthemes and the words which helped form these which draw out nuances of the theme
in question. For instance, one of the main themes is consciousness, which includes the
subthemes of attention, awareness, and contemplation. Psychology has already explored these
concepts in depth, developing a detailed conceptual lexicon, such as identifying various
attention modalities (Posner & Petersen, 1990), and differentiating between access and
phenomenal awareness (Fell, 2004). However, untranslatable words can help refine our
understanding in this area still further. A case in point is the burgeoning interest over recent
decades in the Buddhist-derived concept and practice of mindfulness. This development is
the result of scholars engaging with the i term sati, which was rendered somewhat
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imperfectly, one might argue as ‘mindfulness’ in the early 20th century by T. W. Rhys
Davids (Lomas, 2017c). Over subsequent decades, researchers have paid considerable
attention to elucidating its nature, and honing interventions to facilitate it (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
In the process, psychology has been much enriched, conceptually and practically. In future,
such enrichment could be assisted further by the field engaging with the many other concepts
pertaining to attention and awareness that exist in languages like i.
Figure 4. Cognition
Embodiment
The second new category that has emerged in relation to qualia is embodiment (Lomas,
forthcoming e). This essentially refers to all aspects of our subjective experience of having a
body. Or, put another way, and paraphrasing the philosopher Nagel (1974), what is it like to
be a body. The range of phenomena encompassed here was nicely elucidated by Jackson
(1982) who was pivotal in developing the concept of qualia who included “the hurtfulness
of pains, the itchiness of itches, pangs of jealousy, or about the characteristic experience of
tasting a lemon, smelling a rose, hearing a loud noise or seeing the sky” (p.127). Here, five
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main themes were identified, as shown below in Figure 5. This category is not only important
terrain for psychology to explore when considering wellbeing, but moreover one which has
tended to be somewhat overlooked. For instance, Seligman (2008) lamented the fact that PP
tended to be a “neck-up” focused discipline i.e., that while understandably interested in the
mind, it had neglected the bodily aspects of wellbeing. To that end, he encouraged people to
also attend to “positive health” (i.e., physical wellbeing beyond the absence of illness and
disease). Subsequently there has been some movement in the field towards considering these
areas, as elucidated in, and exemplified by, Hefferon's (2013) book Positive Psychology and
The Body. Nevertheless, the bodily manifestation and experience of wellbeing remains an
understudied and under-theorised aspect of study, to which it will be important to pay more
attention in the years ahead.
Figure 5. Embodiment
Love
Moving to the second meta-category of relationships, my initial analysis of this (in Lomas,
2016b) generated two categories: love (bonds to select close people and phenomena), and
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prosociality (connection to others more broadly). With love, the value of exploring
untranslatable words to bring greater granularity was particularly evident, as articulated in
Lomas (2018c). Perhaps few emotional states are as cherished as love, with surveys
consistently reporting it to be among the most sought-after and valorised of experiences
(Wilkins & Gareis, 2006). Yet few concepts are as broad polysemous in the extreme, as
Berscheid (2010, p.6) puts it with the label encompassing a vast range of phenomena,
spanning diverse spectra of intensity, valence, and duration, and used for all kinds of
relationships, objects and experiences. In Murstein's (1988, p.33) words, love is an “empire
uniting all sorts of feelings, behaviors, and attitudes, sometimes having little in common.”
Given its polysemous nature, scholars have sought to create theoretical typologies of forms of
love. For instance, an influential effort by Lee (1977) drew on distinctions elucidated in the
classical age to identify six ‘styles’ of loving. He identified three ‘primary’ forms: érōs
(romantic, passionate), ludus (flirtatious, playful), and storgē (filial, fraternal, companionate).
By pairing these, three further types arose from the permutations: prâgma (rational, sensible;
a combination of ludus and storgē), mania (possessive, dependent; a combination of érōs and
ludus), and agápē (charitable, selfless; a combination of érōs and storgē). While this typology
does bring greater granularity to the topic, it mainly covers varieties of romantic relationships
(between people who identify as ‘partners’). Thus, the present analysis introduced further
granularity by identifying 14 ‘flavours’ (with this term being used to avoid pigeon-holing
relationships as exclusively just one type, but rather as potentially a blend of more than one
flavour). These flavours can in turn be organised into four main ‘types’ of connection, as
illustrated below in Figure 6.
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18
Figure 6. Love
Prosociality
In addition to close bonds to select others (and phenomena), the initial analysis pointed to the
value of prosociality, i.e., good relations with people ‘in general’ (Lomas, 2018b). Here five
main themes were identified, as outlined below in Figure 7. The main significance of this
category is that these dimensions of wellbeing are thought to be somewhat overlooked in
societies that are relatively more individualistic, particularly Anglophone Western countries.
Indeed, that the ‘West’ tends towards individualism in contrast to the supposed
‘collectivism’ of Eastern cultures – is one of the most prominent cross-cultural notions in
psychology, as first articulated by the likes of Hofstede (1980) and Markus and Kitayama
(1991), and since explored in hundreds of studies (Taras, Steel, & Kirkman, 2012). Such
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
19
work suggests that people in the West tend to view themselves primarily as autonomous
atomistic units, whereas those in Eastern cultures prioritise group identities and goals. That
said, this distinction may be the latest incarnation of the problematic East-West
orientalising discourse identified by Said (2014). In that respect, it homogenises and obscures
myriad differences at a local level, overlooking the possibility that the East possesses its
own strains of individualism, while the West has its own collectivist traditions, as well as
cultures that do place more emphasis on communality, like Scandinavia (Hyyppä & Mäki,
2003). Nevertheless, individualism in Western cultures is seen as a problem for instance,
being associated with poor outcomes on various health and wellbeing metrics (Wilkinson &
Pickett, 2011) and moreover one which may be worsening (Putnam, 1995). Moreover, from
a critical perspective, this individualism has influenced academia itself, leading to models of
wellbeing that downplay the importance of social bonds, and neglecting the notion that
wellbeing is to an extent a social phenomenon (Lomas, 2015). As such, the analysis provided
by this category offers a useful corrective, and enriches our conceptual vocabulary in this
area.
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
20
Figure 7. Prosociality
Eco-Connection
In addition to love and prosociality, the updated analysis of the lexicography found two new
categories of importance with respect to relationships. The first is the quality and strength of
our connection to the natural world, labelled under the rubric ‘eco-connection (Lomas,
2019b), the first of the new categories to have its analysis published. Three main themes were
identified, as outlined in Figure 8 below. The first theme recognises that throughout history
humans have regarded nature as sacred in various ways, including through perspectives such
as animism, polytheism, and pantheism. The second theme encompasses the diverse ways in
which people see themselves as connected to nature, including being intertwined with it,
rooted in it, and longing for it. Finally, the third theme articulates modes of appreciation for
nature, including acts of savouring, sensitivity to its details, and an attention to aesthetics.
One significant aspect to this analysis is that, as with prosociality, Western industrialised
nations are seen as generally lacking appreciation and understanding of the importance of
eco-connection (i.e., having a poor relationship with nature). Over recent centuries, numerous
cultures particularly more industrialised and/or Western ones have become dominated by
predatory, disconnected modes of interaction with nature, in which it tends to be constructed
as a resource to be exploited (rather than a commonwealth to be protected) (Monbiot, 2017).
Moreover, it is thought that this mode of interaction has contributed to the unfolding climate
crisis (Carmichael, 2019). As such, paying better attention to how we can more sustainably
interact with nature will be essential in the years ahead, not only in psychology, but in the
culture at large.
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21
Figure 8. Eco-connection
Aesthetics
In addition to eco-connection, the new analysis pointed towards the importance of aesthetics
(Lomas, forthcoming a). Although not easy to categorise, this phenomenon was included
within the meta-category of relationships, since it pertains to the quality of one’s interaction
with the world around. Here, six main themes emerged, as illustrated below in Figure 9. As
with many other categories and themes here, aesthetics has perhaps not had the attention it
merits from fields such as PP (and psychology in general). Indeed, the value to wellbeing of
art more broadly has similarly been somewhat overlooked, being mainly discussed only in
relation to clinical issues in the context of various forms of art therapy (Malchiodi, 2011).
However, as reviewed by Lomas (2016a), art is an exemplary vehicle for promoting
flourishing more widely. This can occur in various ways, including helping people make
sense of their lives, providing enriching experiences, as a form of entertainment, as a potent
bonding mechanism, and via elevation through aesthetic appreciation. With the exception of
the more instrumental dynamics (e.g., bonding), many of these themes are encompassed
within this category. And again, untranslatable words can help enrich our understanding and
appreciation of this arena. To give one example, the potential of art and aesthetics to enhance
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
22
flourishing has received particular attention in Japan, where cultural forms like Zen have
harnessed such phenomena in transformative and profound ways (Lomas et al., 2017). For
instance, in Zen, art is seen as an especially potent way of expressing, communicating and
encouraging the perception of spiritual truths, far more so than discursive prose (Hisamatsu,
1971). As such, as with the other categories here, psychology may be considerably enriched
by engaging with the insights from other cultures expressed in their untranslatable words.
Figure 9. Aesthetics
Character
We now move into the third and final meta-category, personal development. Initial analysis
of this (in Lomas, 2016b) revealed two categories: character and spirituality. The former
does not refer to character in the sense of personality (i.e., personal characteristics), but rather
in the sense of morals and virtues (i.e., being of ‘good’ character). In this respect, five themes
were identified, as shown below in Figure 10, and articulated in Lomas (2019c). Together,
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
23
these themes might be regarded as the dynamics by which one may manage to attain good
character. Proceeding clockwise from the first theme (which denotes the possibility of good
character per se), considerateness explains why one would want to attain it, wisdom covers
knowing how to, agency addresses the issue of managing to, and skill reflects the outcome of
having thus attained it. The topic of character has long been of interest to psychology, and has
become even more prominent through initiatives like the Values-in-Action (VIA) taxonomy
of character strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). These are “positive traits that a person
owns, celebrates, and frequently uses” (p.29), and their strategic deployment and
development has been linked to wellbeing in various ways (Niemiec, 2017). Notably, the
VIA has a cross-cultural origin, in that researchers identified the 24 strengths by ascertaining
those which appeared to be valued universally across diverse moral and religious traditions
(including Athenian philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam,
Judaism, and Taoism). However, there is also merit in exploring character-related constructs
that have not necessarily been widely valorised, but are potentially unique to certain cultures,
and yet may nevertheless still be of relevance to wellbeing.
Figure 10. Character
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
24
Spirituality
The second category within personal development is the notion of spirituality (Lomas,
2019a). The topic is somewhat opaque, since the question of what ‘spirituality’ refers to is
fairly contested (even more so than other categories here). For instance, until relatively
recently, it was inextricably intertwined with religion (and indeed for many people still is).
However, with the claim of religion waning in numerous places, increasing numbers of
people describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ – as much as one third of the US
population, for example, in a recent survey (Kosmin & Keysar, 2013). In that respect, most
contemporary definitions of spirituality do not necessitate a religious tradition or institution,
as reflected in Koenig's (2009) description of it as “something individuals define for
themselves that is largely free of the rules, regulations and responsibilities associated with
religion” (p. 281). In the analysis here, three main themes were identified, as illustrated below
in Figure 11. Within these themes there is considerable variation, for instance in relation to
how the sacred is conceived, or the myriad practices developed to ‘access’ it. As such, once
again the value of exploring untranslatable words to understand cross-cultural diversity is
evident. However, even amidst diversity, one can identify common or even ‘universal’
patterns. In that respect, the analysis suggested that across the great variety of spiritual
traditions there was sufficient common ground to arrive at a broad conception of spirituality
that holds across these different contexts: engagement with the sacred, usually through
contemplative practices, with the ultimate aim of self-transcendence.
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25
Figure 11. Spirituality
Competence
In addition to character and spirituality, with the addition of new words to the lexicography,
two further categories have subsequently been identified, competence and understanding. The
former overlaps with the theme of skill in the category of character, as featured above.
Indeed, in the original analysis, words relating to competence were contained entirely within
that theme. However, with the development of the project, many more such words have been
identified. These have ‘overflowed’ the theme of skill which relates specifically to
enactment of good character to such an extent that they have given rise to an entire category
of competence (Lomas, forthcoming b). In this respect, four main themes emerged, as
outlined in Figure 12 below. This category relates to various constructs and areas of research
that have been identified as integral to wellbeing, including mastery and coping. Mastery, for
instance, is one of the six dimensions of eudaimonic wellbeing identified by Ryff (1989), and
refers to people’s ability to successfully manage their lives and the social and physical
environments in which they live and act. Likewise, the vast literature on coping includes
analysis of people’s capacity to successfully navigate and deal with life’s challenges (Carver,
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
26
Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989). Clearly, such constructs go beyond the remit of the character-
related subtheme of skill, and warrant a category of their own. The analysis here now
includes a wealth of words related to such constructs, as well as to capacities that may be less
instrumentally-useful, but which are nevertheless relevant to wellbeing, such as artistic
talents and pursuits.
Figure 12. Competence
Understanding
The second additional category within the meta-category of development and the twelfth
and final category identified in the analysis is that of understanding (Lomas, forthcoming
c). This intersects to an extent with the category of cognition outlined above. However, that is
more focused on individual psychological dynamics and processes that underpin the
experience of qualia. By contrast, this present category pertains more to qualities such as
wisdom and knowledge, and to areas of thought such as philosophy, metaphysics, and
epistemology. These endeavours are to an extent shared cultural accomplishments, acquired
and developed socially. One might note some overlap here with the theme of wisdom in the
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
27
category of character; however, as with the case of competence above, words relating to
wisdom have now considerably overflowed the remit of a narrow theme, meriting their own
category. Here the analysis identified four main themes, as illustrated below in Figure 13.
Again, much may be gained from studying untranslatable words in this respect, and from
cross-cultural exploration more generally. Western culture of course has a very rich and deep
history of philosophical thought, and traditions of wisdom and contemplation, much of which
with direct relevance to questions of wellbeing and the good life. However, such is the
influence of these sources that fields like psychology rarely consider other cultural resources.
In PP for instance, classical Greek thinkers are cited heavily, particularly Aristotle (Jorgensen
& Nafstad, 2004). By contrast, other sources of wisdom and knowledge are seldom drawn
upon. This is perhaps now beginning to change with respect to Eastern traditions, given the
burgeoning interest in Eastern-derived practices such as mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
However, other traditions remain largely overlooked, such as the rich history of African
philosophical thought (Brown, 2004). Just as psychology has become enriched through
engaging with Greek and more recently Eastern philosophy, surely it would likewise do so by
studying other non-Western cultural sources.
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
28
Figure 13. Understanding
Conclusion
The analysis above has sought to highlight the value of psychology engaging in greater cross-
cultural scholarship, in this case by studying untranslatable words. The basis of this claim is
that psychology is limited in its understanding of its subject matter by virtue of its Western-
centricity, and more specifically its English-centricity. As decades of research into the
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
29
linguistic relativity hypothesis have shown, people’s experience and understanding of life is
significantly shaped by their language (and culture more generally). Crucially, this shaping
applies to academic psychology, of which English is the dominant mode of discourse. Thus,
the field’s conceptualisation and knowledge of its subject matter is conditioned and limited
by the nature of English itself. So, for instance, phenomena that have not been lexicalised in
English i.e., untranslatable words tend not to be a focus of concern, or even awareness, in
the field. And to the extent that such phenomena are relevant to psychology, then the field’s
understanding is incomplete. To that end, this paper has made the case that such omissions
can be redressed through studying untranslatable words. Such words can help refine the
nomological network or ‘map’ – of concepts in the field.
In the case of my ongoing lexicographic project of which this paper offers an
overarching summary the focus is on mapping wellbeing specifically. In that respect, the
analysis as it stands has led to the identification of three meta-categories, each of which now
features four categories (which in themselves comprise numerous themes). The first meta-
category is qualia, which includes positive feelings (Lomas, 2017a), ambivalent feelings
(Lomas, 2017b), and now in the updated iteration of the analysis, with over 1,400 new
words added to the lexicography since my initial analysis (Lomas, 2016b) also cognition
(Lomas, forthcoming d) and embodiment (Lomas, forthcoming e). The second is
relationships, featuring love (Lomas, 2018c), prosociality (Lomas, 2018b), and now also eco-
connection (Lomas, 2019b) and aesthetics (Lomas, forthcoming a). And the third is personal
development, comprising character (Lomas, 2019c), spirituality (Lomas, 2019a), and now
also competence (Lomas, forthcoming b) and understanding (Lomas, forthcoming c).
Together, these categories might be regarded as a provisional map subject to revision as the
project develops further over time of the main dimensions of wellbeing.
That said, as alluded to in the caveat in the previous sentence, this map cannot yet be
regarded as comprehensive or complete. The lexicography as it stands remains partial and a
work-in progress, given that it currently only features 142 languages, out of some 7,000 in
existence. There are thus likely to be many relevant terms that have not yet been identified by
the project. Indeed, with so many languages, it is unlikely that one research project could
study them all and retrieve their relevant words. Nevertheless, even if the project is an
incomplete work-in-progress, one may still usefully analyse its existing words and emergent
themes, even if such analyses are incomplete and subject to revision. Moreover, plans are in
place to continue to develop the project as discussed below which will mean it continues
to expand its scope and coverage. However, there are also other issues beside this one of
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
30
incompleteness. For instance, of the words that have been included so far, their analysis is
inevitably limited and partial. Given that translation is a problematic exercise, it will not have
been possible to arrive at definitions that would satisfy all speakers of the donor language.
Given the fluidity and complexity of language use, there are always many ways of
interpreting a given word. Thus, the descriptions and definitions articulated in the project are
merely one way of elucidating its words, and ultimately are based on the author’s
interpretation of the source material. That said, dictionaries and scholarly sources were
consulted in the aim of arriving at valid descriptions. As such, overall, even without being
complete or flawless, the project still sheds further light on wellbeing, highlighting nuances
and complexities that may be missing from accounts that are only in English.
It will nevertheless be important to develop the project further over the years ahead.
In that respect, there are numerous possible avenues of exploration. For instance, it would be
worth undertaking detailed qualitative analyses of specific words and linguacultures. This
could include in-depth interviews with bilingual speakers, aimed at identifying and exploring
relevant words in the interviewee’s native language(s). Interviews could discuss these words
in depth, including their etymology, cultural significance, and use in context. Such analyses
could be augmented by ethnographic and anthropological studies of particular cultures, which
would provide insights into the larger meaning-making contexts in which the untranslatable
terms are situated. Of course, this need not mean Western academics objectively studying
these contexts from a supposed position of outside expertise. Scholars and other informed
individuals from these cultures could be invited to collaborate in these enquiries in a spirit of
co-production (Maclean & Cullen, 2009).
In addition to such qualitative endeavours, quantitative analyses of constructs would
be valuable, particularly using factor-analysis (e.g., to examine their internal structure). Such
exploration is exemplified by Scheibe, Freund, and Baltes (2007), who constructed a 28-item
scale to assess the notion of Sehnsucht, a German term explained roughly as a predilection for
longing. Their research in German, and on a German population suggested it comprised
six dimensions: (a) utopian conceptions of an ideal path of life development; (b) a sense of
life’s incompleteness and imperfection; (c) a conjoint focus on the past, present, and future;
(d) ambivalent, bittersweet emotions; (e) deep reflections on life; and (f) a mental world
imbued with symbolic richness. It would be instructive to explore the extent to which non-
German people share similar tendencies towards this state, perhaps by developing versions of
the questionnaire in other languages (although, of course, translating scales introduces its
own complexities). Comparable analyses, including the development of other such scales,
Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING
31
could be undertaken with other words. Such analyses could enable assessment of how such
words sit in relation to existing psychological concepts.
Finally, there is the potential for applied forms of research, including the development
of interventions to help people engage with untranslatable words (and the phenomena these
signify). For instance, the Pali term sati is the basis for the contemporary Buddhist-derived
notion of ‘mindfulness’ (Lomas, 2017c). Over recent years, a wealth of therapeutic activities
and interventions have been created to help people experience and cultivate this state (Kabat-
Zinn, 2003). It is possible that similar endeavours could be undertaken with other such words,
although these efforts will of course be subject to the same challenges and complexities as
have been faced in relation to sati. For instance, words derive their meaning from dynamics
including: factors such as their situatedness within the network of other concepts in that
language (the key insight of structuralism and post-structuralism); the values and traditions in
the culture that created the language; and their experiential use in context. As such, words
cannot simply be ‘transplanted’ from one cultural context to another, and/or from one time
period to another, without important elements being lost or skewed. For instance, in its
original context, sati featured ethical and spiritual connotations that are often diluted or even
erased when the concept was formulated as mindfulness in the context of 20th century USA
(Lomas, 2017c). However, that does not mean such attempts at engagement are futile or
meaningless. Clearly, much has been gained by psychology and the world at large from
the contemporary interest in mindfulness. This applies to all aspects of the lexicography.
Thus, overall, the field has much to learn and gain from engaging with untranslatable words,
and more generally in cultivating greater cross-cultural sensitivity and appreciation.
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32
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This book is the first work to address the question of what kinds of words get borrowed in a systematic and comparative perspective. It studies lexical borrowing behavior on the basis of a world-wide sample of 40 languages, both major languages and minor languages, and both languages with heavy borrowing and languages with little lexical influence from other languages. The book is the result of a five-year project bringing together a unique group of specialists of many different languages and areas. The introductory chapters provide a general up-to-date introduction to language contact at the word level, as well as a presentation of the project's methodology. All the chapters are based on samples of 1000-2000 words, elicited by a uniform meaning list of 1460 meanings. The combined database, comprising over 70,000 words, is published online at the same time as the book is published. For each word, information about loanword status is given in the database, and the 40 case studies in the book describe the social and historical contact situations in detail.The final chapter draws general conclusions about what kinds of words tend to get borrowed, what kinds of word meanings are particularly resistant to borrowing, and what kinds of social contact situations lead to what kinds of borrowing situations. © 2009 by Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, 10785 Berlin, Germany. All rights reserved.