This week the Czech Republic moved up from 27th to 23rd place in the World Happiness Report, an annual index that uses criteria such as GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception to evaluate a nation’s overall well being.
Though they may rank among the happier people in the EU, it is highly doubtful you would actually classify most Czechs you know as bubbly or given to outward expressions of joy.
As an American living in Prague for over a decade, I have learned to tamp down my need for such gestures and declarations of feeling, largely because I am married to a Czech who tends to disappoint on that front.
Still, I often find myself asking him things like, “Isn’t this great?” and “Aren’t you excited?” to which he responds with his usual mix of bemusement and exasperation, the call-and-response mating ritual of the cross-culture couple.
My husband swears his first memory is of sitting on his bedroom floor playing, joyfully, with abandon, until he noticed his mother watching him and suddenly felt ashamed.
This story said so much to me about our differing cultures, namely that, for Czechs, emotions are kept close, often to a fault.
So how do you know, if you are someone like me who requires such affirmations, that your Czech loved ones are truly enjoying a moment?
To hear a Czech simply say “I’m happy” (jsem šťastný), is pretty rare, content (spokojený) being the preferred mind set.
I’ve noticed that when my Czech friends and family are more enthusiastic about something than usual, they respond in triplicate: yes, yes, yes (jo, jo, jo).
A happy Czech will frequently say bezva, or excellent, to express extreme pleasure.
One of my favorite Czech expressions for happiness is “it’s a parade” (to je paráda), because what could possibly be happier than a parade? The long vowel in the middle can be stretched out to show particular satisfaction—parááááda.
Vowel elongation is another clue that a Czech is happier than usual. The exclamation jééé, pronounced like the English “yeah” but more drawn out, is used when one is pleasantly surprised, like when you run into an old friend, for instance.
Repeated use of the untranslatable phrase pohoda (v pohodě), best described to me as something along the lines of the Nordic hygge, a satisfying blend of “tradition” and “good feelings,” is a telling sign that all is well with your Czech person.
While enthused adults may use a “hooray” (hurá) here and there, as is the case with verbal shows of affection, over-the-top outbursts are left to kids; “I have true joy” (mám takovou radost) or “yipee” (jupí) are what a child might say when opening a gift.
Happiness idioms abound in the Czech language: “Jsem šťastný/á jako blecha” means “I’m happy as a flea,” though to the English-trained ear “blecha” is not a very happy sounding word at all.
In English, we reserve the phrase “I am beside myself with happiness” to show extraordinary delight. Czechs say something similar: Jsem štěstím bez sebe (“I’m so happy I’m without myself”).
Czech happiness may be far more subtle than high fives and happy dances but I have noticed that, on occasion, tears of joy are acceptable—even when coming from one’s maddeningly reserved Czech husband.