A Few More Words – Part 1

I started my search for by looking for words that might fit the bill in other languages. I’d enjoyed reading Howard Rheingold’s They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases and wondered if there was an equivalent dealing specifically with emotions. There was: The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty — 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel by Tiffany Watt Smith, a research fellow at the Center for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University of London.

Watt Smith lists all words she considers as defining distinct emotions. There are a number of relevant ones in languages other than English. I’ll get to those below. But first, let me quote at length from the last relevant entry, Warm Glow. (Emphasis mine.)

But truth is, most of us walk off feeling a little bouncier after helping carry a stranger’s stroller up the stairs, or bringing in a neighbor’s shopping. Random acts of kindness give a HUMBLE feeling of solidarity of the “we’re all in this together” variety, even a swell of PRIDE for having been capable enough to do anything useful at all. Yet, though we say “it’s my pleasure” after someone thanks us, the English language has not yet dignified this pleasure with a name. Some have suggested “Altru-hedonism.” Slightly less ugly is the phrase suggested by the Victorian philosopher Herbert Spencer (not known for being pithy): “altruistic pleasure.”

Perhaps this blind spot in the English language can be traced to a distaste for the concept that kindness should be enjoyable at all. The idea that humans are naturally selfish is well established in Western culture. In his sermons, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer John Calvin imagined humans to be devious and depraved, and that genuinely acting in another’s best interests is hard for us to do. He taught the devout to strive to overcome their worse natures and carry out their “Christian duty.” Generosity and kindness weren’t instinctual, but required a concerted effort. Kindness should cost us; perhaps even hurt.

Today’s neuroscientists argue differently. Over the past ten years, research into altruism has suggested that one of the key pleasure pathways of the brain, the mesolimbic system that carries dopamine to the areas associated with reward, is engaged when we donate to charity in the same way as it is when we receive money ourselves. The fMRI images that accompany these studies depict our brains glowing, quite literally, with the pleasure of giving. There are, of course, many other self-interested reasons to be altruistic: helping others binds our societies together and creates reciprocal networks. But the insight that the pleasure we feel is a biological inevitability, “nature’s reward” for behavior that will help our species survive, seems oddly a relief to hear. Perhaps in time this knowledge will shift our way of thinking, until we forget that kindness was ever supposed to be a duty, and relish it only as a pleasure. And perhaps, then, more words for the “warm glow” we feel will not be far behind. 

Now, here are a few non-English words that might be relevant. Note they aren’t really action-oriented words for the pleasures of working as a team.

  • Amae : the sensation of temporary surrender in perfect safety. Amae is commonly acknowledged as part of all kinds of relationships, felt not only between family members, but with friends and in the workplace too.
  • Fago: a unique emotional concept that blurs COMPASSION, SADNESS and LOVE together. It is the pity felt for someone in need, which compels us to care for them, but it is also haunted by a strong sense that one day we will lose them. Fago comes in those moments when our love for others, and their need for us, feels so unexpectedly overwhelming— and life so very fragile and temporary— that we well up.
  • Gezelligheid: derived from the word for “friend,” gezelligheid describes both physical circumstances— being snug in a warm and homely place surrounded by good friends (it’s impossible to be gezelligheid alone)— and an emotional state of feeling “held” and comforted.
  • Mudita: for Gautama Buddha, who lived in the fifth or sixth century BCE, joy was not a scarce resource to be competed over, or parceled out to only a lucky few. He saw it as boundless. For him the word mudita (pronounced moo-dee-ta) captured an experience of JOY, rather than ENVY or RESENTMENT, on hearing of someone else’s good fortune. And he suggested that the fact mudita could be felt at all, is evidence that someone else’s pleasure doesn’t diminish your own store, but increases it.
  • Nakhes: everyone recognizes the DELIGHT and SATISFACTION felt at a child’s— or even younger sibling’s— accomplishments. Perhaps your youngest has just crawled for the first time, or your oldest has cooked a quiche. Seeing a child achieve something— anything!— can make the heart feel like it’s about to burst with joy.
  • Pronoia: a strange, creeping feeling that everyone’s out to help you.

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