Is it just what’s hitting my personal radar or has the various media all at once discovered the meta-concept of “happiness”. I must admit my surprise, given that this particularly fuzzy philosophical concept doesn’t usually translate well in mass media. Traditionally it’s been a topic more suited to one-on-one therapy sessions. But now that the floodgates are open, perhaps it can be looked at from a more critical viewpoint.

Did you know that former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke; a man who’s entire working life dealt with all things cold hard cash, gives speeches on happiness. Unfortunately, as beneficial as his insights may be, they are muted by his predisposition to frame them in his adopted language – that of a Harvard, MIT, Princeton, economist. For most of us this requires a translator, but the fact that he makes the attempt shows that even those at the heart of the financial world are willing to recognize, as a possibility, that we may have wandered a little off track in how we determine value.

Each one of us has a different mix of events and circumstances that make us happy. Some are happiest giving, others receiving, some live on thrills and exciting events while others construct a cocoon where they feel secure and at peace… we all have our desires and fantasies, and individual happiness is often measured by how close we get to their attainment. Many even turn to artificial stimulants (drugs) on their path to happiness but anecdotal evidence suggests this only works if you have both an endless supply, and are ready to abandon dreams of a long life.

One reason we don’t have a universal model or formula for finding happiness is that we don’t really understand what creates it. There is no “X+Y+Z = Happiness” equation. Happiness is an emotion and emotions are too individual. It is acceptable, however, to generalize a few ground rules for creating it. For instance: Finding happiness apparently has a lot to do with the method you use to look for it. Someone, (like me for instance) who gives credence to a Taoist philosophy where, to a certain extent, the heights of your ability to feel pleasure are defined by the depth of the pain you have endured, might suggest that some of the bad things in your life are what eventually brings you happiness. I know that my wife and I take great joy in many of the things we own because we couldn’t afford them in our younger years. Or that after a particularly frightening medical scare, or other threatening event, being able to accomplish the simple things in life take on a whole new joy.

Another irony with happiness is that it’s difficult to achieve in the presence of anxiety. And that makes planning for happiness a problem because planning introduces anxiety, especially if the events have to happen in sequence to achieve your goal. When all goes well it seems more of a relief. On the other hand, we can’t assume that happiness is purely a spontaneous and giddy experience either.

In spite of our individual variations we know that one universal piece of the happiness puzzle is control – the ability for each of us to make decisions governing our lives. A large part of the formula for happiness is, very simply, freedom – and freedom is a function of equality (equal rights), and choice (the ability to live by your own decisions). As a result, your government has a tremendous impact on the happiness equation through its ability to establish and enforce equality – and by doing so provide the security, predictability and the freedom for you to create potential in your life, and that leads to an array of alternatives… or choices. Other parts of the happiness mix include culture, family, community, religion – in fact, any part of your life capable of offering, or restricting, choices. In other words, your potential to attain happiness is strongly influenced by who you are and where you live. Some people are born with all the building blocks in place while others have to fight to create them.

Getting down to “brass tacks”, as they used to say in my parents time, there is no doubt that money can’t buy happiness but there is also no doubt that money can fuel a process that leads to happiness – and in our present society, lack of money can certainly interfere with attaining happiness. According to our Western value system, happiness is something you must invest in, over time. For example: If you own your own home, complete with the toys that entertain you – a home entertainment center, gourmet kitchen, basement workshop, or even a quiet place to read – you gain a foothold on happiness. Other measures such as your capacity to meet financial commitments, buy various forms of protective insurance – including health care and disability insurance – and your ability to enjoy safe and healthy products in the form of nutritious food and reliable transportation. All of these steps give you more control over your life – more security, peace of mind, and more choices.

Many religious groups find this a rather shallow approach to achieving happiness because it leaves out a spiritual process, which is highly regarded in our present culture. Still, most religions impose rules and restrictions that inhibit both choice and equality by demanding submission and exclusive trust – and go on to bully individuals into membership by threatening to punish them in the afterlife with torture and pain if they fail to remain devoted. A few religions are capable of inducing a rapturous state through a combination of hyperventilation and dehydration brought on by hours of chanting, singing and vigorous movement, while others may contribute a sense of well being through meditative prayer, convincing you that an all powerful supernatural presence protects and promotes your best interests. Regardless, most religions offer too variable and vague a process to include in a general formula for seeking happiness – but certain aspects may be valuable as tools.

Family and community can provide love and status, both socio-biological requirements for good mental health, according to science, and the ability to help others gives you a sense of well being and the hope for a legacy, which we all appear to want.

So, money helps reduce your anxiety about surviving the future, and gives you toys and access to places, and activities, that bring joy in the present. Friends and loved ones provide comfort and security as well as partners in the creation of lifetime memories. Governments contribute freedom of choice and freedom from discrimination (when they are doing their job properly). And spirituality may give you the hope it will go on forever. When it all comes together in a setting that is both beautiful and exciting chances are it would be difficult to avoid being happy.

It seems strange that any relevant discussion about happiness appears to require a complex formula, belying the simplicity and purity of the feeling itself but, I suppose, this is unavoidable in a world where even the poorest and most disabled are capable or feeling real happiness, while the richest and healthiest may not be. I suppose paradoxes flourish in all human endeavors. How else could Ben Bernanke become a sage for such an ethereal topic?