"Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better." That gem of greeting-card wisdom, worth its weight in cubic zirconium, was unearthed by the French pharmacist turned psychotherapist Émile Coué (1857ñ1926). Coué's gospel of better living through self-hypnosis (expounded in his 1922 book, Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion) was all the rage in Jazz Age America, where his upbeat mantra harmonized nicely with the bull-market optimism of a nation whistling "We're in the Money." It was and is the perfect novena for the secular religion of success that is America's one true faith. (Coué even advised practitioners to use a rosary-like knotted string to keep track of the twenty repetitions required to program the subconscious for success.)
Coué's catchy maxim cut the die for that durable self-help genre, the daily affirmation. Of course, generations of American thinkers had fertilized the soil in which Coué's ideas took root. The founding father of the self-improvement craze is surely Benjamin Franklin, whose schematic approach to self-betterment, laid out in his Autobiography, endures in the pseudoscientific charts and numbered checklists that are fixtures of personal-growth lit.
Every day, in every way, the pumped-up exhortations of the human-potential movement are growing louder and louder (if not better and better). The growing popularity of audio books has transformed self-help into a $2.48 billion a year industry, bestridden by motivational gurus like supersalesman Zig Ziglar and the incomparable Anthony Robbins, the fire-walking prophet of Constant And Never-ending self-Improvement (cani!) whose arena-rock pep talks and Lurch-like appearanceóhe's six-feet seven, wears a size sixteen shoe, and has a massive, prognathous headóhave made his late-night infomercials the guilty pleasure of weirdo-collectors everywhere. Imagine Saturday Night Live's "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" reading from Mark Leyner's Et Tu, Babe ("I'm massaging IQ-enhancing balm into my temples . . ."). Or Rok, the acromegalic android in the old Star Trek episode, starring in a rock opera based on The Power of Positive Thinking, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Oróbut really, Robbins's infomercials beggar description; they have to be seen to be disbelieved.
In many ways, Robbins is Coué's hyperthyroidal offspring. Robbins's "science" of Neuro-Associative ConditioningÅóa Pavlovian technique for rewiring your nervous system "to associate pleasure with those things you want to continuously move toward and pain [with] those things you need to avoid in order to succeed"óupgrades Coué for a digital culture, in which anything can be seamlessly altered with the click of a mouse.
The French pharmacist's quick-fix alternative to the gloomy drudgery of Freudian analysis was a product of the Machine Age in which he lived. Frederick W. Taylor's theory of "scientific management" and John B. Watson's Pavlov-inspired behaviorist psychology were gaining traction among the power elite. "Psychology as the behaviorist views it," wrote Watson, "is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent on the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness."
At last! A truly modern system of behavior modification, freed from Freud's gothic obsession with childhood traumas. No more introspection, no more interpretation. Psychotherapy without the psyche! What could be more American? Why spend long years on the analytical couch exhuming buried memories when you can just reprogram your biocomputer with a few autosuggestive commands? Serenity now, goddammit, and to hell with all that weltschmerz. Sure, we're a therapy culture, but here in the land of Just Do It, we prefer painless, same-day surgery on our inner deformities: The self-help sections of American bookstores are bulging with volumes promising drive-through makeovers, from 72 Hours to Success to Fast Food for the Soul to Instantaneous Transformation. And if all else fails, there's always Prozac or Zoloft to turn us into shiny happy people. "Give your emptiness and indifference to others, light up your face with the zero degree of joy and pleasure, smile, smile, smile," smirks French philosopher and postmodern irony guy Jean Baudrillard in his Tocquevillian critique, America. "Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth."
No one knew that better than Dale Carnegie, a former salesman whose principles of "human engineering," codified in his 1936 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, are behaviorist to the bone. Carnegie's techniques are founded on the notion of an objectified selfóa manipulable thing to be remade in the image of the most attractive social persona possible in order to manipulate others (i.e., sales prospects). Carnegie's chief weapon in softening up consumer resistance is the smile, "a real smile, a heart-warming smile, a smile that comes from within" that is also, paradoxically, "the kind of smile that will bring a good price in the marketplace." Don't feel like smiling? No problem. "Force yourself to smile. If you are alone, force yourself to whistle or hum a tune or sing. Act as if you were already happy, and that will tend to make you happy. . . . Everybody in the world is seeking happinessóand there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts."
The assumption that you are what you think is a cornerstone of self-improvement theology, from Coué to Stephen Covey. The bible of can-do, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) by Norman Vincent Peale, is dedicated to that proposition. And the heart of Peale's "simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living" is the repetition of gung ho slogans ("Ten times each day practice the following affirmation, repeating it out loud if possible . . .").
A half century later, Peale's "affirmations" are still with us in the books, tapes, and secular revival meetings of self-improvement evangelists and, naturally, in the McBalm of Gilead dispensed by countless self-help books and desktop calendars, from Beyond Feast or Famine: Daily Affirmations for Compulsive Eaters to Gentle Reminders for Co-Dependents: Daily Affirmations.