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Weltschmerz: Why Global Governance Is the Key to the World's Happiness

18/03/2013 16:11 GMT | Updated 18/05/2013 10:12 BST

It's often said that opposites define each other. If there were no night, what would day be? What would it even mean? And so it is with happiness. One might say we only really live and fully experience sheer joy against the backdrop of what it means to feel depressed. Like a see-saw, the deeper one can be, the higher the other can go.

As organisations around the world celebrate the first ever UN International Day of Happiness, it seems clear that happiness is a growing political concern at a global level - but do we have the institutions in place to tackle global unhappiness?

Defining just how happy we feel is tricky because in each of us lurks unacknowledged pain; subconscious anxieties which nag at such a deep level that we're in denial. The overall effect is to dull our capacity for joy; to give us that feeling of "being ok, but...".

Even in these times of austerity, many of us in the West may still feel well off; we may still feel "happy". But in us lurks anxiety about a world-out-of-control; a world in which we may be relatively affluent but where we also harbour deep insecurities about the poverty and suffering of our fellow human beings, the worsening state of world's climate, of oil running out, the horrendous gap between the haves and the have-nots, and so on. In short, we are troubled by the lack of happiness in the lives of others.

This unacknowledged pain is what the Germans call "weltschmerz" - world pain - the pain we necessarily share because so many of our fellow humans are not happy. We somehow realise that, affluent or otherwise, we cannot really feel truly happy unless others are too. We cannot feel truly secure in our affluence if it is built upon the suffering of others. This empathic need, perhaps more than anything else, is the lesson globalisation is teaching us.

Up close and personal, our happiness depends on the happiness of family and close friends. A happy family is one in which each member is nurtured and cared for according to their need, where each feels they have a say, and where there is also some sanction in case of wrong-doing.

At the collective societal dimension of our lives, happiness is far less personal, far less tangible - but no less important. And the way we achieve and strive for it is through democratic governance; through our participation in the society as a citizen with a government which, to some extent, is responsive to our needs and opinions. The nation, as it were, is family writ large.

But when it comes to our collective 'weltschmerz', it's all too evident that we have no competent global institutions capable of solving global problems and bringing us happiness. And until we do, our weltschmerz stays with us.

If releasing our fellow human beings from their suffering can only be achieved by releasing ourselves from ours, it becomes clear that we need to add another layer to our "institutions of happiness". At the micro-level, we have the institution of the family; at the local-level, the local authority; at the national level, the government. But what of the world level?

If our pain is to be properly discharged and resolved, we now need to add an appropriate form of global governance too; a form of governance that is truly capable of tackling global problems decisively, such that we can all be happy; so we can release the full potential for our own happiness by making all our fellow humans happy too.

The message of the Day of Happiness and all the activity around #HappyDay is clear - happiness is about more than simply being happy on the purely personal level, about more than dissolving our personal shadows. And in a globalised context where we are acutely aware of the suffering of others, that kind of happiness might not even be possible. In celebrating an approach to happiness that focuses on bringing more happiness to others, dissolving that global shadow, we are better placed to realise the kind of global governance that might make the happiness of all global citizens a political priority.

We are inescapably all in the same boat. Now let's govern ourselves globally so we can be happy in it.