Why does life suffer

World Pain: Whoever wants to live has to suffer

If everything seems to be going down the drain, wouldn't it be better not to feel anything? No, says the philosopher Sabine Döring. We have to learn to accept pain.

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After Donald Trump was elected president in November, the hangover mood was announced. Although their own lives would not change drastically overnight, many felt personally affected.

This mood continues. We suffer with the things that happen in the world. In German there is the word Weltschmerz for it. But where does the pain come from? And what does it bring? We talk to the philosopher Prof. Dr. Sabine Döring. She researches emotions and what they reveal about ourselves and the world.

ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Professor Döring, many people have the impression that the existing order is out of joint. In German we have the word "Weltschmerz" for it. Why do we suffer from the world?

Sabine Döring: Because it's not going the way we'd like it to. Feelings are ways of seeing and evaluating the world. The evaluation comes about because certain needs, interests, desires, goals and so on are contained in feelings. When I am afraid, fear manifests my need to be intact. Weltschmerz involves certain wishes about how I would like the world to be. But unfortunately it is not developing that way and there is nothing I can do about it. This is where the pain comes from.

ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Why do some feel this pain, but others not?

Döring: Whether I experience the world as inadequate or not depends on my wishes, goals or needs. A craftsman who is happy when the tiles he wants to cover the roof with arrive on time will suffer less Weltschmerz than someone who feels responsible for how the world as a whole develops. So it always depends on what wishes I have.

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ZEIT Campus ONLINE: If you have too high expectations of the world, do you live in a worse world?

Döring: Yes. Suppose I am a supporter of a red-green policy and I'm following the presidential election in Austria. On the one hand, I can rate the result as follows: Great, Alexander Van der Bellen did it. Or I can say: well, but Hofer won almost half of the votes. When I feel Weltschmerz, the glass is half empty and not half full, so to speak.

ZEIT Campus ONLINE: The German term is common in many languages, including English. Why do the Germans in particular have a word for it?

Döring: First of all, we invented Weltschmerz. The German writer Jean Paul shaped it in the 19th century. But I suspect that what was called "Weltschmerz" back then is not exactly what we mean by it today. If you look at Weltschmerz in literature or music, then there is always the pleasure of suffering too. But I don't think that someone who is desperate about our dealings with non-human animals or the situation in Aleppo will enjoy their suffering. Such suffering can, however, become enjoyable suffering if one wants to distinguish oneself or one's social group - to speak with Pierre Bourdieu - by the fact that one feels suffering in the face of certain things. According to the motto: "Hey, I'm one of the good guys!"