One of the most significant names in modern psychological and motivational philosophy will evince blank looks from most people today: French mind theorist Émile Coué (1857–1926). Yet Coué, who earned both adulation and jeers during his lifetime, devised a simple, mantra-based method of self-reprogramming that has recently been validated across a wide range of disciplines, often by researchers who are unaware of the inceptive insights upon which their studies rest. I believe that Coué’s methods not only deserve new credit and respect, but also hold promise for anyone in pursuit of practical therapeutic methods.
Coué proposed a simple formula of using mantras or affirmations to reprogram your psyche along the lines of confidence, enthusiasm, and wellness. His methods prefigured the work of self-help giants like Napoleon Hill, Maxwell Maltz, and Anthony Robbins, as well as recent clinical developments in sleep, neurological, placebo, and psychical research.
Indeed, at one time, thousands of people in the U.S. and Europe swore by Coué’s approach. His key mantra — “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” — was repeated by the Beatles, along with a wide range of therapists and spiritual writers. In rediscovering Coué, you will be able to determine for yourself if his simple approach works. Best of all, it requires only seconds each day.
Coué came to believe that the imagination aided not only recovery, but also a person’s general sense of well-being.
The birth of an idea
Before exploring Coué’s method and its application, it is useful to understand his unusual background. Born in Brittany in 1857, Émile Coué developed an early interest in hypnotism, which he pursued through a mail-order course from Rochester, New York. Coué studied hypnotic methods more rigorously in the late 1880s with French physician and therapist Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault. Liébault was one of the founders of the so-called “Nancy School” of hypnotism, which promoted hypnotism’s therapeutic uses. Leaving behind concepts of occultism and cosmic laws, many of the Nancy School hypnotists saw their treatment as a practical form of suggestion, mental reprogramming, relaxation, and psychotherapy.
This was Coué’s view, bolstered by personal experience. While working in the early 1900s as a pharmacist in Troyes, in northwestern France, Coué made a startling discovery: Patients responded better to medications when he spoke in praise of the formula. Coué came to believe that the imagination aided not only recovery but also a person’s general sense of well-being. From this insight, Coué developed his method of “conscious autosuggestion.” This was essentially a form of waking hypnosis that involved repeating confidence-building mantras in a relaxed or semiconscious state.
Coué argued that many of us suffer from poor self-image. This becomes unconsciously reinforced because your willpower, or drive to achieve, is overcome by your imagination, by which he meant one’s habitual self-perceptions. In 1922 he wrote, “When the will and the imagination are opposed to each other, it is always the imagination which wins.” By way of example, he asked people to think of walking across a wooden plank laid on the floor — obviously an easy task. But if the same plank is elevated high off the ground, the task becomes fraught with fear, even though the physical demand remains the same. This, Coué asserted, is what we are constantly doing on a mental level when we imagine ourselves as worthless or weak.
These insights are what drove the autosuggestion pioneer toward his signature achievement. Coué believed that through the power of self-suggestion or autosuggestion, any individual, with nearly any problem, could self-induce the same kinds of positive results he had observed when working in Troyes. In pursuit of an overarching method, Coué devised his self-affirming mantra: “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Although few people today have ever heard of Coué, many still recognize his formula. The mind theorist made his signature phrase famous through lecture tours of Europe and the U.S. in the early 1920s.
To critics, however, Coué reflected everything that was fickle and unsound about modern mind metaphysics and motivational philosophies. “How,” they wondered, “could anyone believe that this little singsong mantra — ‘Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better’ — could solve anything?” But in a facet of Coué’s career that is often overlooked, he demonstrated considerable insight, later validated by sleep researchers and others, into how he prescribed using the formula.
Coué explained that you must recite the “day by day” mantra just as you’re drifting off to sleep at night when you’re hovering within that very relaxed state between wakefulness and sleep. Sleep researchers now call these moments hypnagogia, an intriguing state of mind during which you possess sensory awareness, but your perceptions of reality bend and morph, like images from a Salvador Dalí painting. During hypnagogia, your mind is extremely supple and suggestible. Coué understood this by observation and deemed it the period to gently whisper to yourself 20 times: “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” He didn’t want you to rouse yourself from your near-sleep state by counting, so he recommended knotting a small string twenty times and then using this device like rosary beads to mark off your repetitions. He also said to repeat the same procedure at the very moment when you wake in the morning, which is a state sometimes called hypnopompic. It is similar to the nighttime state insofar as you are occupying a shadow world of consciousness, yet possess sufficient cognition to direct your mental workings.
Too easy to work?
Coué insisted that his mantra-based routine would reprogram your mind and uplift your abilities. Was he correct? There’s one way to find out, at least for your own private purposes: Try it! We must never place ourselves above what are perceived by some as “simple” ideas. I have been influenced by the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986), who emerged from the Vedic tradition but was an unclassifiable voice. Krishnamurti observed that the greatest impediment to self-development and independent thought is the wish for respectability. Nothing does more to stunt personal experiment, he taught, than the certainty that you must follow the compass point of accepted inquiry. Once you grow fixated on that compass point, nearly everything that you read, hear, and encounter gets evaluated on whether it moves you closer to or further from its perceived direction. This makes independent experiment extremely difficult. But if you’re unafraid of a little hands-on philosophy, Coué presents the perfect opportunity with his original mantra, intended to serve all purposes and circumstances. Of course, you can also craft your own simple mantra that reflects a specific desire, but you might want to start with Coué’s original version to become comfortable with the practice.
If you need further encouragement to self-experiment, it may help you to realize that Coué’s influence traveled in many remarkable directions. The Beatles tried Coué’s method and apparently liked it, as references to Coué appear in some of their songs. In 1967, Paul McCartney used Coué’s mantra in the infectious chorus of Getting Better, “It’s getting better all the time… ,” and the lyrics paid further tribute to the healer: “You gave me the word, I finally heard / I’m doing the best that I can.” John Lennon also recited Coué’s formula in his 1980 song Beautiful Boy, “Before you go to sleep, say a little prayer: Every day, in every way, it’s getting better and better.”
Beyond the Fab Four, placebo researchers at Harvard Medical School recently validated one of Coué’s core insights. In January 2014, clinicians from Harvard’s program in placebo studies published a paper reporting that migraine sufferers responded better to medication when given “positive information” about the drug. This was the same observation Coué had made in the early 1900s. Harvard’s study was considered a landmark because it suggested that the placebo response is always operative. It was the first study to use suggestion, in this case, news about a drug’s efficacy, in connection with an active drug rather than an inert substance, and hence, found that personal expectation impacts how, and to what extent, we experience an active drug’s benefits. Although the Harvard paper echoed Coué’s original insight, it made no mention of him.
I wondered whether the researchers had Coué in mind when they designed the study and asked one of the principals, who did not respond. So, I contacted the director of Harvard Medical School’s program in placebo studies, Ted Kaptchuk, a remarkable and inquisitive clinician who also worked on the study. “Of course I know about Coué,” Kaptchuk told me, “‘I’m getting better day by day.’” He agreed that the migraine study coalesced with Coué’s observations, though the researchers had not been thinking of him when they designed it.
The influence of an idea
Coué’s impact appears under the radar in an unusual range of places. An influential 20th-century British Methodist minister named Leslie D. Weatherhead looked for a way that patients and seekers could effectively convince themselves of the truth and power of their affirmations, especially when such statements chafed against circumstantial reality, such as in cases of addiction or persistently low self-worth. Weatherhead was active in the Oxford Group in the 1930s, which preceded AA in its pursuit of religious-therapeutic methods. In using suggestions or affirmations to improve one’s sense of self-worth and puncture limiting beliefs, the minister was, in his own way, attempting to update the methods of Coué.
Weatherhead understood that affirmations — such as “I am confident and poised” — could not penetrate the “critical apparatus” of the human mind, which he compared to “a policeman on traffic duty.” Other physicians and therapists similarly noted the problem of affirmations lacking emotional persuasiveness. Some therapists insisted that affirmations had to be credible in order to get through to the subject; no reasonable person would believe exaggerated self-claims, a point that Coué had also made. While Weatherhead agreed with these critiques, he also believed that the rational “traffic cop” could be eluded by two practices. The first was the act of repetition: “A policeman on duty who refuses, say, a cyclist the first time, might ultimately let him into the town if he presented himself again and again,” he wrote in 1951. Continuing the metaphor, Weatherhead took matters further:
“I can imagine that a cyclist approaching a town might more easily elude the vigilance of a policeman if the attempt to do so were made in the half-light of early dawn or the dusk of evening. Here also the parable illumines a truth. The early morning, when we waken, and the evening, just as we drop off to sleep, are the best times for suggestions to be made to the mind.”
As Weatherhead saw it, the hypnagogic state — again, the drowsy state between wakefulness and sleep, generally experienced when a person is drifting off in the evening or coming to in the morning — is a period of unique psychological flexibility, when ordinary barriers are down. This is pure Couéism. Moreover, this fact probably reflects why people suffering from depression or anxiety report the early waking hours as the most difficult time of day — the rational defenses are slackened. If the individual could use the gentlest efforts to repeat affirmations, without rousing himself fully to a waking state, the new ideas could penetrate, Coué and Weatherhead believed.
The mystical writer Neville Goddard (1905–1972) made a similar point about the malleability of the hypnagogic mind. So did the 20th-century psychical researcher and scientist Charles Honorton (1946–1992), who used this observation as a basis for testing the potential for telepathy between individuals. Honorton believed that a hypnagogic state was, in effect, “prime time” for the reception of extrasensory communication, or what is more commonly referred to as “ESP.”
In the early 1970s, Honorton and his collaborators embarked on a long-running series of highly-regarded parapsychology (“psi”) experiments, known as the “ganzfeld” experiments (German for “whole field”). These trials were designed to induce a hypnagogic state in a “receiver.” The subject was placed, seated or reclining, in a soft-lit or darkened room and fitted with eye covers and earphones to create a state of comfortable sensory deprivation or low-level stimulation (such as with a “white noise” machine). Seated in another room, a “sender” would attempt to telepathically convey an image to the receiver. After the sending period ended, the receiver was asked to select the correct image from among four — three images were decoys, establishing a chance hit-rate of 25%. Experimenters found that receivers consistently made higher-than-chance selections of the correct “sent” image. Honorton collaborated with avowed skeptic and research psychologist Ray Hyman in reviewing the data from a wide range of ganzfeld experiments. The psychical researcher and the skeptic jointly wrote: “We agree that there is an overall significant effect in this database that cannot be reasonably explained by selective reporting or multiple analysis.” Honorton added, “Moreover, we agree that the significant outcomes have been produced by a number of different investigators.”
Hyman insisted that none of this was proof of psi, though he later acknowledged that, “Contemporary ganzfeld experiments display methodological and statistical sophistication well above previous parapsychological research. Despite better controls and careful use of statistical inference, the investigators seem to be getting significant results that do not appear to derive from the more obvious flaws of previous research.” Although serious psychical research has come under withering, and often unfair criticism in recent years, the ganzfeld experiments have remained relatively untouched — and their methodological basis is derived directly from the insights of Coué.
Three simple steps
Coué’s presence also emerges in popular literature. One of the most enduring and beguiling pieces of popular metaphysics on the American scene is a 28-page pamphlet called It Works, written in 1926 by a Chicago ad executive named Roy Herbert Jarrett, who went under the alias “R.H.J.” His widely-used method is to write down and focus on your desires — first, you must clarify your need; second, write it down and think of it always; and third, tell no one what you are doing to maintain mental steadiness. Plain enough, perhaps, but the seeker’s insights rested on the deeper aspects of Couéism.
In the early 1920s, Jarrett and many other Americans were thrilled by news of Coué’s mantra. The “Miracle Man of France” briefly grew into an international sensation as American newspapers featured Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-styled drawings of Coué, looking like a goateed magician and gently displaying his knotted string at eye level like a hypnotic device. In early 1923, Coué embarked on a three-week lecture tour of America, with one of his final stops being Jarrett’s hometown of Chicago, where the Frenchman spoke to a packed house at Orchestra Hall.
In a raucous scene at this event, a crowd of more than 2,000 demanded that the therapist help a paralytic man who had been seated onstage. Coué defiantly told the audience that his autosuggestive treatments could work only on illnesses that originated in the mind. “I have not the magic hand,” he insisted. Nonetheless, Coué approached the man and told him to concentrate on his legs and to repeat, “It is passing, it is passing.” The seated man struggled up, haltingly walked, and the crowd exploded. Coué rejected any notion that his “cure” was miraculous and insisted that the man’s disease must have been psychosomatic.
To some Americans, Coué’s message of self-affirmation held special relevance for oppressed people. The pages of Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, Negro World, echoed Coué’s “day by day” mantra in an editorial headline: “Every Day in Every Way We See Drawing Nearer and Nearer the Coming of the Dawn for Black Men.” The paper editorialized that Marcus Garvey’s teachings provided the same “uplifting psychic influence” as Coué’s.
Coué took a special liking to Americans. He found American attitudes a refreshing departure from what he knew back home. “The French mind,” he wrote in 1923, “prefers first to discuss and argue on the fundamentals of a principle before inquiring into its practical adaptability to everyday life. The American mind, on the contrary, immediately sees the possibilities of it, and seeks… to carry the idea further even than the author of it may have conceived.”
We all possess the private agency of personal experiment; indeed, it may be the area in life in which we are most free.
The therapist could have been describing salesman-seeker Roy Herbert Jarrett and many others in the American positive-mind tradition. “A short while ago,” Jarrett wrote in 1926, the year of Coué’s death, “Dr. Emile Coué came to this country and showed thousands of people how to help themselves. Thousands of others spoofed at the idea, refused his assistance, and are today where they were before his visit.”
Just as Coué had observed about the American mind, Jarrett sought to boldly expand on the uses of autosuggestion. Sounding the keynote of the American metaphysical tradition, Jarrett believed that subconscious-mind training did more than just recondition the mind: it activated a divine inner power that served to out-picture a person’s mental images into the surrounding world. “I call this power ‘Emmanuel’ (God in us),” Jarrett wrote. In essence, the entirety of American positive-mind metaphysics rests on Coué-style methods.