A wealthy American lady was worried about her husband, so without telling him she arranged a consultation with the eminent French psycologist, Professor Coué.
“My husband thinks he’s sick. He’s always complaining,” she said.
The old gentleman smiled kindly. “The solution is very simple. You see, the problem is that he thinks he’s sick. Tell him to repeat to himself that every day, in every way, he is getting better and better.”
The following week she returned for another consultation. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m afraid I have an even bigger problem now.”
“And what is that, my dear lady?”
“Now my husband thinks he’s dead.”
Since it’s the new year and we’re all making resolutions to lose weight, get fitter and strive to lead happier and more fulfilled and useful lives, we thought Monsieur le Professeur Coué might be appropriate.
Nowadays, every bookshop in the western world will have a section devoted to one of the boom industries of publishing in recent decades, “self-help”. The shelves groan under the weight of tomes which promise the secrets of being healthy, happy and successful in work, love and life. This is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide.
You can have a nice debate about who was the original self-help guru of modern and contemporary history. The obvious contender is Dale Carnegie (1888-1955) whose How to Win Friends and Influence People hasn’t been out of print since it was first published in 1936. Or there’s Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) whose Self Help (1859) inspired generations of would-be entrepreneurs to emulate the examples of various industrialists who followed the maxim Smiles used as the opening words of the book: “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”
There are plenty of other contenders; as with the invention of so many things, you could make a case for Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) whose annual Poor Richard’s Almanack was full of homespun wisdom and aphorisms, mostly on the virtues of thrift, plain dealing and hard work. (Though if you had the in-laws for Christmas, you might more readily identify with Poor Richard’s observation that “fish and visitors stink after three days.”)
All of these gurus, though, were mostly focussed on increasing one’s prosperity. Arguably the first psychological self-help superstar was Émile Coué (1857-1926). He’s the one who coined that phrase “every day in every way I am getting better and better” (there are variations), and, quite late on in his life, it made him a worldwide celebrity. The joke above comes from America (it may have been a Vaudeville gag) following his hugely successful tour of the United States in 1923.
Despite the ridicule, Coué was no charlatan, but a very distinguished psychologist and pharmacologist who became fascinated by the placebo effect early in his career. The “every day” mantra, sprang from his research into the power of auto-suggestion. Widely misinterpreted, and equally widely satirised, Coué nonetheless brought a simple – and many said, effective – form of self-help to the masses who could not afford the increasingly fashionable attentions of the psychiatrist’s couch.