Meanings of Life Beyond English: On "happiness" and other human values

Carsten Levisen, Anna Wierzbicka

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review


As the English word “happiness” has gained prominence in the global discourse of values, it has become increasingly clear that “happiness” belongs to the group of untranslatables – words that defy translation. This fact has not prevented “happiness studies” from going global. For almost two decades linguists have documented the bias of Anglocentrism in studies of “happiness across nations”, “world happiness” and “global happiness surveys”. In a nutshell, the bias is this: happiness is an English keyword and a quintessential Anglo concept, and as such it inevitably imposes on speakers of other languages an Anglo perspective on the meaning of life. This chapter overviews happiness-critical studies in cross-linguistic semantics and illustrates the untranslatability of “happiness” with cross-linguistic evidence from a variety of languages. Focusing in particular on a comparative analysis on happiness with French bonheur and Russian sčast’e, the chapter turns to explore the discourse of two so-called “happy nations”: Denmark and Vanuatu (South Pacific), and the local concepts through which speakers make sense of their lives. Basing its analysis on translatables, the paper provides a corrective to “happiness logics” of current scholarship, and proposes a linguistically grounded alternative to the study of the diversity of human values.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHappiness Beyond Well-being
EditorsD. Leontiev, E. Osin, K. Sheldon
Publication statusSubmitted - 2021


  • Happiness studies
  • Lykke
  • Danish langauge
  • French language
  • Russian language
  • Anglocentrism
  • Cultural semantics
  • Vanuatu
  • Untranslatables
  • Happy nations
  • Bislama

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