Historian Barbara Taylor and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips don't believe that nice people finish last. In their new book, On Kindness, the authors employ history, social theory and psychoanalysis to chart how kindness has become a pejorative word over the years. Taylor spoke with TIME from her home in London about how success doesn't require cruelty, why people distrust generous gestures and how President Obama might be bringing the virtue back.
In the book you use history and psychoanalysis to explain what kindness means today and how it has evolved. Why take that route?
Taylor: I had got fed up with seeing stuff in the media about people suddenly discovering that being nice to others made them happier than being self-interested or greedy. How is it that people don't know this? In order to understand what's happened to kindness in contemporary society, it's important to understand how we got here. (See 20 ways to get and stay happy.)
There seems to be this idea that during difficult economic times like this one, people are more inclined to be kind to one another. What's your take on that notion?
When Adam and I set out to write the book, of course, we had absolutely no idea that we were going to be publishing it in the middle of a global financial meltdown. Pushing the book out into the current situation has been fascinating because there's clearly a great deal of moral questioning going on and a lot of anxiety about the mentalities that have been encouraged over the last quarter-century: this whole "greed is good" and "me first" and the kind of triumphalism that has accompanied capitalism.
Do you think kindness might sometimes hinder the pursuit of success or achievement?
I don't think there is an incompatibility between kindness and leading a life that gives you satisfaction and pleasure. The core argument of the book, in a sense, is that one almost requires the other. Kindness is a huge source of pleasure for people. There's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't make it a selfish emotion.
Why do you think people are suspicious of kindness?
There is a kind of folk wisdom these days that human beings are basically grasping, selfish, nasty creatures. That's how we look at people. That's what we suspect we're really like ourselves. So we're very wary about displays of kindness. The word nice kind of captures that suspicion. It doesn't have much meaning. [Niceness] could just be a masquerade, a piece of fakery. People think that a lot because that's the ethos of our age. I think people would gratefully give up that wariness given half a chance.
People are very vulnerable creatures. We need each other. Kindness opens us up to other people in such a way that we really acutely experience our own vulnerability. If you close yourself off, if you neither give nor accept sympathy and fellow-feeling, then a defensive [or cruel] position can feel like the safest thing. Kindness is really seen as a sign of weakness.
I think there's a proper set of anxieties about kindness. Opening yourself up to other people does entail risk. We can make it less risky if we don't organize society in such a way that only the most ruthless and rapacious get to the top.
Do you think President Obama's rhetoric, and his emphasis on empathy in difficult times, might trickle down to engender the sort of kindness you stress in the book?
Hard times don't necessarily make people nicer to each other. I think that's a myth. When people feel really anxious and fearful for themselves and their families, that doesn't necessarily foster kindly feelings. It can create a really bunkerist mentality. I think that there are many wonderfully encouraging things going on right now, and certainly Obama's presidency is right up there. But I think people need to feel confident enough about their futures not to scapegoat others. (See pictures of Barack Obama's nation of hope.)
Some have blamed the sharp increase in cases of depression and other mental illnesses on our increased social isolation. Do you think the lack of kindness you describe may have contributed to this?
It's this question of what it means for people to need each other and just how profound and deep that need runs. But it's often quite difficult to translate that need into action in one's life. The last few decades have seen a huge increase in the numbers of people who are living outside any kind of family framework. And it's not like people can replace that with warm, neighborly relationships, because there's been an erosion of that kind of community life too.
At the same time, there's been a huge increase in the value placed on independence. It's like being an independent person is the most important thing, and an acknowledged sense of need and dependence on others unless you're very, very young or ill is reprehensible. So people find themselves in a terrible double bind.
Why are you advocating for kindness?
Kindness is an orientation toward life and other people. It doesn't depend upon getting back exactly what you might hope for in each case. People who take pleasure in their own existences who take pleasure in being alive have a sense of vitality and are able to [orient themselves] toward the well-being of others. As human beings, we're made through our relationships with other people. They're absolutely fundamental to who we are and how we understand ourselves. No one is an island. We are our relationships with others.
As a historian, you have insight into how kindness has evolved over time. With that knowledge, how do you think it will evolve in the future?
One thing we can safely guess is that a society in which inequalities are less grotesque [would] encourage much higher levels of kindness. It would be wonderful to imagine that we might be heading in that direction, but we've sure got a long way to go.