One of my favourite parts about learning about different languages, is trying to find untranslatable words — words that do not have a direct translation in English. An example of this is the Dutch word “uitwaaien” means to walk in the country side to clear one’s head. Another example is the Swedish word “badruka” translates to the feeling of reluctantly entering a body of water outdoors. Language is made up of so many words, and it is often these untranslatable words which can give interesting insight of the cultural norms of people speaking that language. The words we speak also have a connotation and shape the way we perceive events. Is one language truly happier than another?
In 1969, two psychologists named Matlin and Stang decided to test the hypothesis that individuals use positive language rather than negative language, titled the “Pollyanna Principle” (Matlin, 2004). In 2015 the University of Vermont decided to take a closer look at this hypothesis. They looked at various sources of linguistic data (books, tweets, television subtitles, etc.) and analyzed the word choices of ten languages. These languages included English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Korean and Indonesian. For each language, the researchers identified 10, 000 of the most frequently used words. They hired 50 native speakers of each language, and asked them to rank on a 1–10 happiness scale (1 being a frown and 10 being extremely happy). For example, in English, “laughter” received an average score of 8.5. The researchers averaged out the scores and analyzed the data.
Based on the overall scores in all the languages, on average each language uses more inherently “positive” words than negative. The researchers looked at the happiest words and compared the scores given by the native speakers to how often the “happy” words were used online
Researchers revealed that Spanish is the “happiest” language, while Chinese is neutral, featuring the least amount of happy words. The order of the language happiness index is:
While this study provided insight to the idea of a happiness index for words, does this correlate to the happiness of individuals speaking those languages? Can the results of the study showing how despite the language we speak more positively be generalized to all languages?
Dodds, Peter Sheridan, et al. “Human language reveals a universal positivity bias.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.8 (2015): 2389–2394.
Matlin, Margaret W. Pollyanna principle. Hove: Psychology Press, 2004.