Philosophies of Happiness

A Comparative Introduction to the Flourishing Life

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Diana Lobel
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Well informed and informative, Diana Lobel’s Philosophies of Happiness is likely to become a welcome go-to source for scholars in religious studies, theology, philosophy, and potentially, moral psychology. As its subtitle suggests, Lobel’s volume offers a comparative introduction to key aspects of the flourishing life. Lobel sets out to explore traditions of flourishing and well-being, recognizing their diversity and distinctiveness while identifying points of connection, complementarity, and mutual resonances. Deploying the idea of a family resemblance between apparently distinct and distinctive traditions, she detects similarities without Procrustean-forcing, and avoids facile distinguishing in order to divide. Of course, whether Mary has uncle Fred’s nose, or whose red hair Prince Harry sports, can depend on what one wants to see as much as on what is seen, but, on the whole, Lobel skilfully achieves her aim.

The scope of Lobel’s monograph is impressive. There can be few scholars, or reviewers for that matter, as familiar with such a wide array of accounts of well-being from ancient to modern, east to west, theistic to secular.  Beginning sensibly with Aristotle’s views on the well-lived life and eudaimonia, we are taken on a grand if selective tour of relevant philosophy, religion, contemporary (positive) psychology, and even some cognitive neuroscience. Chapters include a helpful presentation of Epicurus, rightly rescued from pure hedonism, followed by interesting contrasts and comparisons between Confucian ritual and Daoist effortless action. Four chapters then variously consider the highest good or, even more explicitly, a theistic telos: the Bhagavad Gita, St. Augustine, Maimonides, and the Sufi mystical ascent in the Conference of the Birds. More secular approaches complete the survey with chapters on Eastern and Western approaches to mindfulness, Zen and the beginners’ mind, and creative flow. The book ends with a short, somewhat cautious, summary and conclusion.

Six themes are duly identified as contributing to a life of happiness: attentive awareness, in particular appreciating the beauty of the present moment; effortless action; good relationships; love or devotion; creative engagement; the pursuit of meaning, significance, and value. Metaphorically comprising the genome of the flourishing life, these themes recur in different combinations across Lobel’s sources. In merely seeking to identify family resemblances, however, her account falls short of a full treatment of what we might think of as gene expression, phylogeny, and ontogeny. This might well be a prudent and wise scholarly strategy. To do otherwise could be overly ambitious, but, ultimately, no new creature was born.

Another reason for Lobel’s prudence might be her understandable desire to communicate with audiences not necessarily at ease with theism, reflecting too the more relativist religious studies rather than theological flavor of her monograph. But, at a deeper level, I occasionally detected a mildly embarrassed, even semi-apologetic tone when God appeared. It was as if theistic accounts were museum curios rather than live options, and where the book was really heading was in praise of a radical immanence and creative flow, a theme which does indeed reverberate through her book as she herself finally admits.

Perhaps because of this, I was a trifle disappointed with her discussion of Augustine.  This relies somewhat too heavily for my taste on a rather old-fashioned, modernist account of the divided self. As others have shown elsewhere, this is neither psychologically nor culturally sufficient for a full understanding of Augustine’s philosophical theology. Admittedly, it is invidious for a reviewer, and certainly one without Lobel’s comprehensive vision, to suggest what might have pulled all this together better, but a deeper emphasis on a participatory ontology, certainly to be found in Augustine, could conceivably have done so. Superannuating more modern, supreme-being theology, and negating dualisms of various sorts, such an approach not only paradoxically reconnects the transcendent and immanent and locates the direction of our flourishing through a “God-nav” positioning system in which we already live and move and have our being, it also suggests further points of contact with her other interlocutors.  

Aquinas, of course, takes all this further. He offers precisely the type of anchor this book lacks. Not only sharing the neo-Platonic participation, and grounding in sacra doctrina of Augustine, Aquinas’s grand mediaeval synthesis is also, of course, in friendly dialogue with several other sources, most notably Aristotle but also Jewish and Islamic thinkers such as Maimonides, Averroes, and al-Ghazali. Moreover, his accounts of habitus, of character strengths as second nature following Aristotle, and the sweet delight of virtue and grace, complement more modern psychology and recent realist ontologies. Finally, and more surprisingly for some, perhaps, the angelic doctor is also an erotic, mystical theologian and not, as so often caricatured, a dry scholastic. And so, with Eckhart, Cusa, and others in his wake, and like the Conference of the Birds, he is comfortable with letting go of all idolatries and constructions of God to become and bask in the paradoxical beatific vision of God’s no-thingness, the visio Dei.

I mention all this not to labor the fact that there is a large, Christian orthodox-shaped hole in Lobel’s monograph, though clearly there is. It is simply that, for this reader at least, integrative opportunities have been missed. That said, what is covered is covered very well; what Lobel has given is gift enough for now, and a trustworthy starting point for other scholarly adventures. A more committed view through a stronger lens, other than those provided by the weaker optics of immanence and flow, could inevitably require her to abandon her attempt to stand back sympathetically from her subject matter. Distanced comparisons or engaged synthesis might be Lobel’s quandary, just as it is for religious studies and theology as a whole. Still, her writing is clear and engaging, production values are high, and I can imagine this establishing its rightful place on a variety of curricula. It is worth reading carefully, following up on some of her many sources, then taking much further.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Hampson is Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Diana Lobel is associate professor of religion at Boston University. She is the author of Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Ha-Levi's Kuzari (2000), A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paqūda’s Duties of the Heart (2006), and The Quest for God and the Good: World Philosophy as a Living Experience (Columbia, 2011).


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