Smiling faces on every billboard, and yet Prozac prescriptions are rocketing. The pursuit of happiness is a growth industry, and yet increasing rates of depression are paralysing the population. What’s going on?

Here are two books offering an insightful analysis of happiness. A Life of One’s Own is full of reflection and introspection. It makes a strong case for happiness as an intensely personal experience. By contrast, In Search of Happiness is a fast-paced and engaging historical and cultural discourse on happiness, exploring how the human race has perceived and chased this elusive concept from time immemorial.

In Search of Happiness does the important job of opening our eyes to the fact that happiness, and the job of seeking it, has been interpreted in many ways over the ages. Thus our current mode of seeking hap-piness is just a cultural expression of our time: not necessarily the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way.

Previous cultures have sought happiness through many varied avenues: through virtue and moral achievement (the Cynics and Stoics), through justice and gratitude (the Greeks), through surrender and ecstasy (the Ecstatics), through pleasure (the Hedonists), through returning to Nature (the Confucians) and even by completely renouncing happiness in order to obtain it (the Taoists), through prayer, or simply through luck.

Today, the trend is to ‘work at’ happiness through self-help, make a positive ‘choice’ to be happy or simply shop and consume our way to it: all routes that are more likely to cultivate depression, or at best a shallow, grinning type of happiness, rather than true happiness. So whenever we find ourselves locked in misery, engaged in navel-gazing and self-admonishment, or staring vacantly down a shopping aisle, perhaps we should lift our heads a little and examine the cultural backdrop to our ills.

As Schumaker points out in his book, “Almost every aspect of the modern way of life diminishes our chances of meaningful happiness.” And he is right. Today, people in urban societies (the majority) live very isolated, screen-focused lives, marked by passivity, inertia and consumerism. We live in a culture that often stifles human expression and the social elements that promote happiness, prompting Schumaker to call upon society to reinvent itself as a human enterprise rather than an economic one. In order to relish real, true happiness nowadays, he says, we need to become rebels: “Genuine happiness in today’s world is a form of protest… it is a revolutionary response that calls upon the person to entertain doubt and to question the norms of their host culture.”

A simpler way might be to book a one-way ticket to Samoa, via Nigeria and Venezuela. These are apparently the world’s happiest countries. The common values they share are worth examining – strong family bonds and communities, a curbing of the individual ego, and a lively culture of sharing, music and dancing. They experience less stress, less work and less greed. Overall, there is certainly greater contentment, better relationships, and more laughter ringing in the streets.

Of course, apart from the cultural backdrop, there are many other keys to happiness. And one person who analysed deeply the source of personal happiness is the British psychoanalyst Marion Milner, in her book A Life of One’s Own. First published in 1934, it has been reprinted many times, demonstrating what a highly unusual (and useful) probe it is into the nature of the mind and happiness.

The book is based on the author’s notes and diaries over a seven-year period. The stimulus for the project was her own self-doubt. She couldn’t seem to ‘enjoy’ herself despite doing all the things that should lead to happiness. She surrounded herself with friends, ‘did’ lots of ‘activities’ – such as going to music recitals and parties – and yet she felt lost. Inauthentic. As if she was living someone else’s life. She wanted to find a way in to accessing the happiness she occasionally felt, so she set out to become an avid naturalist of herself, lying still in the undergrowth and hoping to catch sight of her thoughts.

It became clear to her that there are many different states of thinking, and different types of thoughts: background thoughts, which barge in, unruly and uncontrollable, dragging up the dregs of her mind; ‘chattering’ thoughts of pettiness and trifles; dreamy thoughts of total absorption; and those rare times when thought became intense pleasure and brought great clarity. She realised, too, that happiness cannot be forced and slowly, she tracked it down to its lair. Her gentle fathoming forms the progress of the book. She leaves no stone unturned.

A Life of One’s Own is a dense and sometimes meandering read, and offers no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but much of it will resonate with personal experience, including exposure to thoughtful practices such as meditation, psychological counselling, dream therapy and Jungian psychology. It is, more than all of this, a very brave book.

So is there any shared territory between these two very different books? Yes, and it is summed up by Tolstoy’s quote: “If you want to be happy, be.”

For Milner that’s what she had to get to: an understanding of herself, allowing it to bubble up and exist in the present moment. For Schumaker the quote reflects that happiness comes from expressing what it means to be human and to be alive. He is adamant that happiness doesn’t come from seeking, from shopping, or from sensationalism. It often stems from simplicity, and from sharing, and we should take heed of his happiness-promoting factors: beauty, singing, music, dancing, Nature, friendship, limiting one’s expectations, caring for others, slowing down and enjoying the here and now.

So what is happiness? And what makes us happy? These are the questions that should be central to our lives (and motivations), and examined daily. It seems obvious but isn’t, because there is so much peddling of the emotional state of happiness – so much hoodwinking and bamboozling through adverts – that we must remember to think clearly, and for ourselves.

Sophie Poklewski Koziell is an associate editor of Resurgence.