What is happiness? It’s one of the most basic human emotions. The pursuit of it is considered a basic human right, enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and recognised by the UN as a “fundamental human goal.” But what is it? And is it the same on the other side of the world?
Spoiler Alert: No, it’s not. In fact, the belief that happiness is universal is a common mistake that could impact how you market your global business. After all, “happiness” is one of the major emotions that marketers appeal to. Here are some examples of how happiness varies across cultures, and some tips to avoid this common international marketing pitfall.
Why Happiness Gets Lost in Translation
Why is “happiness” so hard to translate? To start, it’s more difficult than you’d think to define it, even in English. Sure, Merriam-Webster may define it as “the state of being happy.” But if it were that easy, the self-help industry wouldn’t be raking in billions of dollars, would it? In the pop culture of the English-speaking world, it’s been described as everything from a warm puppy to a warm gun.
So, what is happiness? Even sociologists who study happiness for a living have had trouble creating a definition that translates easily to other languages and other cultures. As the Washington Post points out, that’s the trouble with all the studies that claim to have identified the “happiest countries,” usually Denmark. The definition of happiness may have been lost in translation:
“Some researchers say the reason is that happiness in Danish is often translated as lykke — a term that can describe a kind of everyday well-being that might be brought on by a nice cup of coffee or a slice of bread with cheese.”
Although now that I think about it, good coffee and good cheese make me a very happy girl, and I’m not even Danish. What is happiness? Is there more to it than that? I’m not sure.
In most languages, there are a variety of possible translations for “happiness.” Each one carries its own shades of meaning, and often none of them match the English definition exactly. For example, researchers studying happiness in China used three different words in surveys and interviews, “xingfu for a good life, you yiyi for meaning and kuaile for a good mood.” Read more