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Book Review: Defending Happiness: And Other Acts of Bravery by Amy Shea

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Amy Shea’s Defending Happiness: And Other Acts of Bravery reads like an updated Erma Bombeck for our time.

The chapters are well-focused and filled with humorous anecdotes that every woman living in our youth-drawn, self-seeking culture can relate to. As a body of work, Shea’s collection encourages us to expand ourselves beyond what we’re told to expect from life and have an authentic relationship with the world. She states, “Many see happiness as something that happens to them, but I believe you have to find it, go after it, and protect what makes you happy.”

As a buddhist, I spend time exploring the construct of the word “happiness,” its relevance and its manifestations in the world. I have come to the conclusion that the quotidian definition of happiness, wrapped up as it is in external circumstance, is ultimately unsatisfying. Defending Happiness makes that point through personal story telling without conceit.

In particular, Shea’s story about finding the signs of aging in herself resonated with me. She illuminated the way in which she had to grapple with the feelings that evidence of aging set loose. In an interview she’s stated, “I felt angry and set up by it. But that was another opportunity to really question what I was associating aging with. It felt like one big ending, and that turned out not to be true at all.”

Throughout the book, Shea alludes to her personal biography. Among the challenges she has faced are growing up in a housing project poor with six siblings, interpersonal violence within her family and breast cancer. These are essential elements of her life story and these revelations were enticing. At times they were incomplete, however. I would have enjoyed a first chapter dedicated to developing a more complete personal biography, so that I could put the other essays into context without having to assemble the pieces myself as I was reading.

An example of complexities that are difficult to appreciate without more background information is Shea’s relationship with her father. She admits to having mixed feelings toward him, alternately anger and forgiveness. She alludes to his not being motivated to get up and engage with her in activities as a child and reveals her thoughts regarding his stroke and subsequent difficulty communicating. Because the story elements of this relationship were spread across numerous chapters, I couldn’t construct a cohesive arc to the relationship, which was too bad as I was very interested in learning more about it.

At various points in her stories, it becomes clear that Shea is a social and political liberal. As that is also my tendency, I found the references to be amusing. These moments of partisan revelry, may be less satisfying for women who strongly identify as conservative and/or Republican.

Overall, I found Defending Happiness to be a pleasurable read. Shea does a good job of encouraging us to maintain our sense of humor when we might otherwise become frustratingly mired in our failures.

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