How to become happy, rich and successful


Christian Life

Enny de Bruijn, RD

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People today like to learn from a book how to live their life. Succeeding in life and becoming the best version of yourself, that is what it is all about. Also for many Christians. But opinions differ as to what exactly constitutes success.

In the old days, before the Second World War, there were no self-help books. Many people in the Western world heard a sermon every Sunday that always talked about how you should live. And whether you were Protestant or Roman Catholic, Reformed or Liberal, everyone agreed on one thing: a truly happy, successful and meaningful life was not about you. It was about learning to renounce yourself and to love God and your neighbour.

That was also the message of all Christian literature. Take the story "Arm... en toch rijk" (Poor, yet rich) by the Dutch author Anne de Vries, about Hanneke, who lived "all alone in her little house on the heath". "She was very poor and old and infirm. And yet she was not grumpy and sad. Hanneke was grateful and happy. She was poor. But still rich. For the love of God is the greatest treasure. It is worth more than all the money in the world.


But with the post-war secularisation, the weekly sermon disappeared from the life of the average European citizen. Most people no longer wanted a message of "being content with your life because God has put you here, and there is a much better life to come". They no longer believed in heaven, they wanted to improve their lives here and now. And to this end, they no longer sought refuge in religion, but in psychology.

Make no mistake, psychology and religion can coexist very well, and the increased attention to psychology has many positive sides. The fact that more attention has been paid to mental health is a good thing. That there is more help and care for people who are struggling, for whatever reason, is a positive development - a great improvement on the past.

But if you look at the enormous interest in self-reflection and self-improvement, even among the 90 percent of the Dutch population who do not need the advice of a psychologist, psychiatrist or psychotherapist ... then it is not surprising that cultural philosophers regularly speak of a "psychologisation" and "therapeutisation" of society. The number of "lifestyle coaches" (people who help others to live healthier or happier lives) has recently increased tenfold. At the beginning of 2013, there were 478 coaches registered with the Chamber of Commerce; by the end of 2021, there were 5071. Not to mention the proliferation of (expensive) courses and coaching programmes within the business world.

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For people with a more limited budget, there are the self-help books, which have been a tried and tested means of coaching and improving oneself since the 1970s. Especially in recent years, the market has grown explosively. No less than twelve of the hundred best-selling books in 2021 in the Netherlands fit under the heading "personal development". Think of titles such as "Je bent zoals je denkt" (based on The Science of Getting Rich and As A Man Thinketh) , "Master your mindset" and "Live more, think less". All good for tens of thousands copies sold in the past year.

This still growing trend gave Dutch historian Maarten van den Heuvel the idea of doing serious research into self-help books. He chose an original approach: take the most popular titles of the past seventy years, read them all and then list what they have to say about the question of what a good and successful life is. He wrote an extraordinarily fascinating book about the results of that research: "The AEX of the Soul. How self-help books reflect the spirit of the age" (see box "What is a good life?").

What is a good life?

People today think differently about the "good life" than people from the 1950s. In his book "De AEX van de ziel" (The stock exchange of the soul), Maarten van den Heuvel convincingly shows that self-help books are pre-eminently an indicator of that changing feeling about life.

You cannot see that when you just read a few of those books, because as Van den Heuvel says: they often contradict each other, one says this, the other that, and often different lines run next to each other through time. But if you compare dozens of books with each other, patterns become visible.

When you read that book, you see how much has changed between the Second World War and the corona crisis of recent years. Not only on the outside of life - the welfare state, land consolidation, educational reforms, scale increases, digitalisation - but also and especially on the inside. For centuries, people in the Christian West thought along the same lines about "living well" and "being a good person". But in our secular world, this very idea of a good life has changed dramatically.

Not that all self-help books say the same thing. Just as there are many types of therapy, and great differences between one therapist and another, there are also quite a few differences in the message that authors of self-help books convey. Some say you should think positively, others tell you not to think but to feel. And again, others advise you to let go of old patterns, others indicate your limits and yet others accept the setbacks and imperfection of life.

But all writers, without exception, assume that you, the reader, are prepared to work hard on yourself. Even if their message is that you should do less and relax more. You are your own project, responsible for your choices, your success and your failure. Just as you force your body into the desired shape with a diet and an exercise plan, you shape your character and personality by taking the life lessons from the self-help books to heart.

Life is not feasible, and you have no control over the future; you will find that out in the course of your existence. So you get stuck in the only thing you think you can control: your own attitude, your own reaction to the events and problems in your life, the social makeability of your own existence. Perhaps that is why books with lists and step-by-step plans are so successful: "14 ways to change self-destructive habits", "7 qualities of effective leadership", "12 rules for life", and so on.

Relations and leadership

This whole culture of personality building, self-development and self-management did certainly not skip the Christian world. Think of all the novels about "discovering your true destiny and God's plan for your life" since the 1980s. Think of all the Christian management and leadership courses since the 1990s. Or think of all the articles in Christian women's magazines about rest, relaxation, setting boundaries and being yourself in our present time.

All these themes reflect the ever-changing spirit of the times, exactly as Maarten van den Heuvel describes in his book. Even though Christian writers naturally place their own accents and consciously try to frame their subject within a Biblical view of man and a Biblical view of the world. Sometimes they succeed better than others, but the effort is always there.

In Christian circles, booklets on marriage, family and relationships have always been very popular. For example, Gary Chapman's well-known book "The Five Love Languages". But in recent years, the big bestsellers from general bookshops in the Netherlands have also been gaining ground.

Conservative Christian young men, for example, love the books by Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson ("Giving Meaning to Life", "12 Rules for Life").

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His message: don't be too preoccupied with how you feel and whether you are happy, you have to learn as a human being to live meaningfully and make a meaningful contribution to society. So give yourself a kick in the behind and just do it.

Meanwhile, during leadership courses, reformed managers study together "The Seven Habits of Effective Leadership" by Stephen Covey or the practical behavioural change book by the Dutch author Ben Tiggelaar: "Dream, Dare, Do". These choices are not strange, as Covey and Tiggelaar both have a Christian background and this is reflected in their books. Covey pays a lot of attention to character building, to the importance of the principles from which you live. In his first chapter, Tiggelaar already quotes the apostle Paul: "I do not do what I want, I do what I hate. Both have nothing to do with striving for success for the sake of success, they emphasise the development of the right behaviour and the right attitude to life.

Whereas Christian men like to read books on leadership, preferably with development methods and step-by-step plans for self-management included, women are much more concerned with finding the right balance in life. Titles like "De kracht van rust” (The power of rest), by Dutch author Mirjam van der Vegt, or "Nee is oké. Meer genieten, minder moeten” (No is okay. Enjoy more, must less) by Dutch writers Carianne Ros and Michelle van Dusseldorp. Especially Christian women, with whom the duty to help is deeply ingrained, are not so good at saying "no". So self-help books on that subject undoubtedly fill a gap in the market.

This search for peace, balance and self-acceptance is also in line with the latest trend in the self-help book market: being yourself, letting go, accepting the imperfect. Think of Brené Brown's bestsellers ("The gifts of imperfection", "The power of vulnerability") that are also eagerly read in Christian circles. And it is not without reason that the personal experience stories of Annemarie van Heijningen-Steenbergen are incredibly popular. With her, there is no perfect picture, but titles such as "Belevenissen van een niet-perfecte gelovige" (Experiences of a non-perfect believer) and "Getrouwd zijn is de hemel niet” (Being married is not heaven).

So, there is something for everyone on the self-help books shelves. And many people really benefit from the insights and tips they gain from their reading. Yet, with all those programmatic titles, you sometimes get the feeling: every author says something different, and they are all equally firm, they are all equally sure how to do it... but who could be right? Especially a book like "The AEX of the Soul" by Maarten van den Heuvel shows how subjective and time-bound many psychological insights are.


But maybe that doesn't matter either. Maybe it doesn't even matter which book you pick up, as long as you pick up a book and think about yourself. As long as you try to look at yourself critically and improve your behaviour. How, that does not really matter. Except, of course, when you start asking the deeper question, the one that is always present in the background: are you really able to improve yourself?

The answer to that question immediately determines which self-help books will appeal to you. If you believe that people can, to a certain extent, mould themselves and determine their own future, then you will fall for books that put you to work, that ask you for goals, action plans and points for improvement. But if you do not believe in the social shaping of mankind, then you will be more susceptible to books that tell you that you have to be yourself, that not perfect is also good enough and that it is about accepting yourself as you are.

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The problem for Reformed Christians, however, is that both types are emotionally at odds with a Reformed view of man and the world, because they ignore the problem of sin and the human incapacity for good. That problem can be solved by compartmentalising life. Theologically, you are then "incapable of any good" and must "die to yourself", but psychologically you can "be yourself", "be happy with yourself" and "work on yourself." This is the solution that has been widely adopted in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands.

Faith and psychology

But still, there is a friction. That is why publishers of reformed books mainly publish books with a practical approach - about parenting, mourning, etc. - while themes such as personal and character development or inner healing are left to more general Christian or evangelical publishers. This is probably because you can only really deal with these themes from the perspective of the believer - not the perspective that is usual in the more conservative churches. Take the popular Dutch book "Ik kan veranderen” (I can change), by Michelle van Dusseldorp: "As believers, we may know that we are 'a new creation', people who have been changed inwardly by God." Only within that framework can "inner healing" and "flourishing" take shape.

So, faith and psychology can never be completely separated, and that makes it difficult. Especially if you include history. If you think back to the old story of Anne de Vries, with which this article began, or to all the other old books, stories and sermons from the Reformed tradition. How far, how different, how strange those texts sometimes seem, with their emphasis on self-denial, in our contemporary world full of people taking selfies, thinking about themselves, selling themselves and making a project of their own development.

There is nothing wrong with psychological insight, of course. There is also nothing wrong with a nice self-help book - you can often learn a lot from it. But sometimes it is also good to put that book away for a while and turn your gaze away from yourself to the outside world, to the people around you.

Post-war developments

1. Good manners

People in the post-war period must be strong and contribute to the welfare of the world. Order and self-discipline are important. Making a good impression in the eyes of others is also important, which is why there is a lot of interest in the question of how things should be done. Books from this period focused mainly on growing self-confidence, overcoming shyness and good manners.

2. Self-development

Unlike the previous generation, which was mainly concerned with building up society and still had a fairly compartmentalised way of thinking, the generation of the 1960s and 1970s is much more concerned with itself. Keywords: self-development, progress, changing relationships between men and women, changing views on authority. Related titles: “I’m okay, you're okay”, “What do women want?”

3. Living in harmony

From the 1980s onwards, a new way of thinking emerges, which continues for decades. It is about new age, inner wisdom, being open to cosmic forces, positive thinking, becoming who you really are by discovering your true self and your true destiny, learning to live in harmony with the world and people. With a sub-theme: understanding the differences between men and women. Popular titles are: "You can heal your life", "Inner wisdom", "The Secret", "Men are from Mars, women from Venus", "Why men don't listen and women can't read maps".

4. Self-management

Alongside (and opposite) the line of New Age, another trend emerged in the 1990s. The ubiquitous market thinking also pervades the message of self-help books. It is all about results in the outside world, being effective, successful and assertive, getting what you want, managing yourself as if you were a business. Think of titles such as: "Dream, Dare, Do", "How to get what you want and want what you have", "Keys to effective leadership."

5. Accepting imperfection

After the crisis of 2008, people started to look more critically at all that striving for positivity, success and happiness. Instead, it is now about vulnerability, about dealing with imperfection, about stopping forced "positive thinking" and learning to deal with setbacks and shortcomings. Not striving for wealth, status, pleasure and success, but for personal growth and good relationships with the people around you. Titles that respond to this are for example: "Love for imperfect things", "The noble art of not giving a f*ck", "The power of vulnerability", "The gifts of imperfection".

Stephen R. Covey

Worldwide, more than 40 million copies of Stephen Covey's bestseller “The Seven Habits of Effective Leadership” have been sold. According to the American writer and businessman Covey (who has since died), it is all about developing seven qualities in yourself that are the key to success. It is not about ego or status, but about virtue, character development and personality.

This article was translated by CNE.news and published by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on March 29, 2022



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