Look Hard: Today's Day of Happiness May Be Historic

20/03/2013 12:52 GMT | Updated 19/05/2013 10:12 BST

I doubt many readers of the Huffington Post could say hand on heart that the United Nations had ever made them happy. A small minority who've lived in conflict zones probably have good reason to be grateful. But, for most of us, international organisations seem far removed from daily life, in a world of summits and resolutions, with a fairly high ratio of hypocrisy and duplicity. That's just one reason why it's easy to be cynical about the fact that today has been declared by the UN to be a Day of Happiness. Most international days pass with a flurry of activity but close to zero impact on real life, and today's happiness day could be another of those.

But on this occasion the cynics and sceptics would be wrong. If you stand back, the remarkable significance of this day becomes clearer. For most of human history the main goal of states has been to conquer land, and to achieve glory for their rulers, usually at others expense. Then in recent decades it was all about GDP. It's only in very recent history that rulers have been willing to commit themselves to helping their citizens live happier lives.

That they are doing so is in part the result of the spread of democracy, and of the idea, implicit in the UN's Charter for Human Rights, that states should be servants not masters. This shift, so remarkable when seen in the long view, is the result of the slow, but steady awakening of the world's peoples to the idea that they can be sovereign - in charge of their fate and not just subject to the whims of others.

Living in old democracies, our newspapers full of the latest political scandals, it's easy to be jaded and miss the big picture. But for the rest of our lives my guess is that we will see governments and politicians increasingly taking it for granted that at least one of the ways they should be judged is their success in fostering the conditions for people to live happier lives. As they will learn, any commitment to happiness can be risky. David Cameron pledged his government to putting happiness at the heart of its work, and commissioned the Office of National Statistics to do big surveys of just how happy the British people are. In the week of a budget which is unlikely to bring many smiles to people's faces, it's not hard to see how this commitment could backfire. Austerity is grim, and any recovery may be notably joyless.

But one of the virtues of talking about happiness is it quickly brings you back to the everyday details of life. Today is as much about citizens - about us - as it is about the governments that make up the UN. It forces attention to the question of what we can do to improve the wellbeing of the people around us. How can we use simple devices like paying attention to thanking the people around us, taking care to notice nature, or looking after our own health and fitness. Some of these can have surprisingly powerful effects, particularly for people who spend too much of their lives glued to screens, or walking the streets hunched over their smartphones. Again and again in recent years cynical journalists have tried out the simple techniques that scientific research has shown to work in improving happiness, and, despite themselves, have ended up being won over.

Not all of these methods are easy, because it's habits that make the difference, and habits are hard to change. Deeper fulfilment is rather different from the happiness of seeing a good film or watching your team win at football, and it doesn't come at the push of a button. But there are so many things that we, and governments, can do that it's sad so few of them are acted on. Governments may not be well placed to get their people dancing (which in some evidence is just about the best thing you can do to enhance happiness). But they can help children grow up better prepared for happy lives and strong relationships; they can help schools train for resilience; and they can encourage health services to do as much for mental health as physical health. Economic policy can also play a big role. For example, there is lots of evidence that being out of a job has a disproportionately bad effect on happiness.

Seen from afar this period will look like a midway point - stumbling through a very fundamental change in how we see the world we live in. That shift is to a mentality in which we recognise that success isn't just about physical stuff, or just about money. Instead it's as much about the quality of the relationships we have with those around us. Their happiness and ours are intertwined.

In my book I suggest that this will form one of the important threads in the emergence of a different kind of capitalism - less wasteful, cruel and blind than the one we have, which is now going through another of its periodic crises. As I argue these crises are rarely only economic - they have always been crises of meaning as well - crises of economic systems that just haven't made enough sense even to the people doing best out of them.

Today will hopefully prompt a cascade of small actions - It almost certainly won't be the stuff of summits, or of news bulletins which still tend to be about what important people do rather than the things which people do which are important. But it matters - and it matters mainly because it is about the things that ultimately really matter.

Geoff Mulgan's The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism's Future is published this month by Princeton University Press