A Global Guide To Happiness: 8 Untranslatable Secrets That Could Help Us Find Contentment

happiness around the world

Happiness: we all seek it. Every single one of us was born with a universal language – the natural ability to laugh, smile and express joy without a need for words. As a species, we thrive on it.

But what is happiness? And how do we achieve it? 

Here’s an article written by Hannah Cook on the secrets of happiness from around the world.

Merriam-Webster’s happiness definition is: “a state of well-being and contentment: joy”.  But what makes each of us happy is actually a very personal and individual thing, and can also change with time. Ideas of happiness around the world also vary depending on all sorts of stuff: culture, geography, religion, affluence.  So it makes sense for us to continually learn from one another and take our happiness cues from other cultures who seem to be doing something right!

I practised Hygge before it was even a thing

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

I’ve never needed many excuses to get into my pyjamas and fluffy socks and snuggle up on the sofa with a blanket and a mug of hot tea. So when my cosy contentment finally got a name, it somehow made it feel more legit and had less guilt attached to it. In the absence of any direct English translation, the snuggly Danish tradition of Hygge (pronounced: “HOO-guh”) quickly became one of our words of the year back in 2016, with countless happiness articles and books exploring the practice ever since.

If you somehow missed the hype (where’ve you been?!), the art of Hygge is all about embracing seasonal living and finding joy in simple comforts, particularly during the colder, darker months. Think: candles, cosy textiles, open fires, a good book, hot food and steaming mugs of cocoa. Being the weather-focused nation we are, it’s surprising the UK didn’t adopt this Scandinavian practice with such enthusiasm sooner. 

Then came lagom

Lagom happiness


Hot on Hygge’s heels, another imported Scandi word burst onto the scene. And, while ‘lagom’ (“lah-GOHM”) never quite managed to reach the same popularity, its basic idea in conscious and balanced living is most definitely here to stay, with a growing number of us aspiring to a simpler, more eco-conscious lifestyle. Akin to the WWII mantra “Make do and Mend”, lagom is living in that happy medium between too much and too little; everything in moderation. Like Hygge, it embraces the simple pleasures in life. However, lagom’s principles are easier to apply all year round. 

The happiest folk in the world



More Scandi traditions like ‘gökotta’ (to rise at dawn to listen to the morning birdsong), ‘döstädning’ (a cathartic form of decluttering, also known as ‘death cleaning’) and ‘fika’ (the daily ritual of sharing a coffee and cake break) – all from Swedish – have been lovingly imported into our own language and culture in recent years. We just can’t seem to get enough of the Nordic lifestyle, can we?!… Why? Probably because the region consistently boasts the happiest countries in the world – and who wouldn’t want to aspire to that? The United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which is published annually on the International Day of Happiness, assesses 156 countries on things like: freedom of choice, pro-social behaviour, income and healthy life expectancy. Finland has topped the happiness chart for the past two years in a row, with Norway hot on its heels and Denmark and Sweden also consistently ranking in the top 10. 

Other happy nations

Scandinavia might appear to be leading the way in wellbeing, but there are plenty of other places that have their own happiness meanings and traditions. (Remember when Feng Shui was a thing? I was an obsessed teenager, constantly rearranging my bedroom!… Anyway, I digress).

If you’ve ‘hygge-ed’ your way through winter, have had your fill of Scandi trends, or are simply looking for new ways to find your happy, here are eight more foreign secrets to happiness for you to try:

Gezelligheid (Dutch)

Gezelligheid (Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash)

Gezelligheid (Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash)

This approach is centred on joy, connection and celebration with the people in our life. So – doing things that are good for the soul; relaxing together, enjoying good food and conversation (hashtag weekend vibes!) Humans thrive on connection, so it’s important to our wellbeing to regularly spend time in the company of others. Think dinner parties, going out for Sunday lunch, or a good old-fashioned wedding. Even simply having friends round for a cuppa is gezelligheid! If you’re an introvert like me, just remember to schedule yourself in some solitude to recharge your social batteries afterwards.

Wei Wu Wei (Chinese)

Wei Wu Wei (Photo by zhang Mickey on Unsplash)

Wei Wu Wei (Photo by zhang Mickey on Unsplash)

Translating literally as “action through non-action,” wei wu wei is the ancient principle of slowing down and going with the flow when something cannot be achieved by simply ‘trying harder’. For example, seeking happiness itself is not necessarily the way to find it. Our efforts are better spent on doing the things that make us happy, so that happiness comes to us naturally. I like this one because I have always believed that if something is meant to be, it will be; everything happens for a reason and at the right time. Living with anxiety, I find this a helpful way of thinking if I’m ever in a quandary or experiencing intrusive or unhelpful future-based thoughts.

Meraki (Greek)

Meraki (Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash)

Meraki (Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash)

This is one of my favourite practices. It’s about doing things with soul, creativity and love – putting something of ourselves into whatever we do, and the idea that taking such care, craftsmanship and pride in our work can give us pleasure. We all know how much better it feels when we put our whole selves into something. Mother Teresa once said, “It’s not about how much you do, but how much love you put into what you do, that counts.” It doesn’t necessarily apply just to creative activities, either. Simply cooking a meal for the family, organising your workspace, or helping a friend can all be done with heart and soul.

Ikigai (Japanese)

Ikigai (Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash)

Ikigai (Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash)

If you’ve been feeling a little lost in life, perhaps you need to find your ikigai? This literally translates into English as “live value/worth” and is all about uncovering your life’s purpose and having a reason to get up in the morning.  In Japan, where average life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, they even see retirement as an opportunity to embrace the age-old tradition of ikigai full-time. Coincidence? I think not! Recognising your reason for being is undeniably linked to happiness levels –at any age! So let’s get searching… 

Còsagach/Coorie (Scottish Gaelic)

Cosagach (Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash)

Cosagach (Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash)

If you’ve got ties to Scotland, you might already know this one? Pronounced “KAW-sa-goch” – think Hygge but with a cheeky wee dram. Scotland’s wild winters are comparable to those of the Nordic region, so it makes sense for them to share similar ideas about seeking comfort and contentment in cosying up when it’s cold outside. Just remember to add a cockle-warming drop of whiskey into the mix for some authentic Scotch happiness… “Slangevar!”

Ubuntu (Nigerian)

Ubuntu (Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim on Unsplash)

Ubuntu (Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim on Unsplash)

Loosely translating as “I am because we are,” this ancient humanist philosophy highlights the fact that we do not exist in isolation; we are one. The idea of putting the community before the individual is an age-old philosophy that runs right through Southern African culture and art, with much of their secret to happiness being built on this mind-set of togetherness. While our own society is naturally more insular, the approach can be applied to the wider global community, nature and the habitat we all share: this beautiful planet of ours. Whatever we do will have some kind of impact – good or bad – so it’s about making considered choices and taking pleasure in the knowledge that we are helping to make a positive difference. We are all in this together.

Ho’oponopono (Hawaiian)

Hooponopono (Photo by Elizeu Dias on Unsplash)

Hooponopono (Photo by Elizeu Dias on Unsplash)

This is the ancient Hawaiian secret to finding inner peace by letting go of grievances and learning to forgive – another principle I personally try to live by. Pono literally means ‘to make right’, so the double usage indicates you should reconcile with the person in order to find reconciliation in yourself – which makes complete sense to me! I’ve always said, rather than wasting our energy on unnecessary angst, resentment, or stewing over an apology we might never get, it’s surely got to be better for our wellbeing to let go of weighty resentment, focus on moving forward and live life happier?

Keyif (Turkish)

Keyif (Photo by Matt Tsir on Unsplash)

Keyif (Photo by Matt Tsir on Unsplash)

Directly translating as “pleasure”, this Turkish pastime centres on quiet relaxation and living in the present. Quite ‘Scandinavian’ in a lot of ways, it’s a perfect match with the current mood for meditation and mindfulness. The idea is to make a conscious effort to take time for yourself each day and do nothing but enjoy the moment – whether that’s laying back in the bath, getting outside and clearing your mind, or simply just sitting for a while… A welcome antidote to our hectic lifestyles and ‘always on’ society.

How I apply them

From this world of ideas, I have pick-and-mixed my favourite principles and created a balanced approach that suits my personal recipe for happiness. Which, in a sense, harks back to lagom I suppose; not too little, and not too much. (Just call me Goldilocks.) 

So ask yourself, “What is true happiness to me? How does each of the above ideas fit with my own dreams and values? And how can I start implementing them today?” Or take a look at 10 Steps I’ve Taken to Improve my Wellness for some more happiness inspiration.

Hannah is a copywriter and designer for health, wellbeing and conscious lifestyle brands. She specialises in creating content to help others live with their eyes and hearts wide open.

Main image by Stella Rose on Unsplash

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