10 “Rules of Life” from Tolstoy — What Are Your Rules?

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

I have a love/hate relationship with Tolstoy. I love his fiction, and for that reason keep feeling compelled to learn more about his life, but then am driven away by his faults. I should stay away from Tolstoy biographies and just read his novels.

In any event, for happiness-project purposes, Tolstoy is particularly fascinating — both because he wrote so extensively about happiness and because he made and broke so many resolutions himself. Spectacularly.

In Henri Troyat’s biography, Tolstoy, which I haven’t been able to finish yet, because I find Tolstoy so maddening, Troyat includes an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life” (I’m still trying to get my hands on the whole list). Tolstoy wrote these rules when he was eighteen years old:

  • Get up early (five o’clock)
  • Go to bed early (nine to ten o’clock)
  • Eat little and avoid sweets
  • Try to do everything by yourself
  • Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater
  • Keep away from women
  • Kill desire by work
  • Be good, but try to let no one know it
  • Always live less expensively than you might
  • Change nothing in your style of living even if you become ten times richer

Apart from the specifics of this particular list, I’m always interested to see when great minds take this approach. Taking the time to write your resolutions, or your personal manifesto, is an endeavor that can help us be more aware of the elements of a happy life. Everyone’s list of rules would be different; certainly Tolstoy’s list reflects him.

Have you written your own Rules of Life, or manifesto, or the like? Has it helped you better to live up to your own standards for yourself?

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project.  Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

12 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Maggie W says:

    Since Leo was a compulsive gambler in his late teens and early twenties, it appears he wasn’t being honest when he composed his list.  Also, he most certainly did not adhere to bullet # 6. 

    I don’t have any use for lists or for a litany of rules.  The Golden Rule does it for me, although I am not always as mindful as I should be. As for Tolstoy, Anna Karenina is a very good read.

  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Something within me has always told me to live life to the fullest and that we are on this earth to do unto others.  To have to live by a set of written rules like this would defeat my way of thinking.  I am more of a ”
    yes I can” type of person than one who has to stop and say that rules I have made would either make me pretty darn guilty — or frankly, spoil my life as I live it. 

    As for Tolstoy, I am hoping that every woman who loves movies will get the DVD of The Last Station — my favorite film of two years ago with wonderful Helen Mirren as Tolstoy’s wife, played beautifully, and Christopher Plummer in one of his best roles as Tolstoy himself.  The scenery is glorious and I found the movie perfection.  It actually illustrates Tolstoy’s struggle to balance fame and wealth with his commitment to a life devoid of material things.  As you watch it, you will see how poorly he lives up to his 10 rules.

    • avatar Bella Mia says:

      Thanks for the suggestion Joan. I was just discussing a movie selection with my husband this morning, and we couldn’t decide what to watch in our snowed in condition.

  3. avatar Bella Mia says:

    Here are several of mine:
    Make humor and prayer my default coping mechanisms….and chocolate; not alcohol, drugs, material goods, or gambling.
    Err on the side of life.
    Expose myself  to a minimal amount to TOXIC risk, and try to expose myself to “positive Black Swans” as much as possible.
    Consider, Does the risk equal the reward,” when making decisions.
    (The term “Black Swan” comes from the Nissam Taleb book, The Black Swan,” and refers to unexpected events or developments that have a disproportionally large impact on our lives.)
    Invest in my social community through church activities and service, and through the interests of my children.  Err on the side of saying Yes, and taking on too much.
    Fast once a month, and demand that my body submit to my intellectual desires….and mostly it does….a learned behavior, and teach this to my children.
    Choose ideas and experiences over material possessions, and then choose people over experiences.  The opportunity costs for raising children has never been greater as there are so many opportunities to do so many things, and children are expensive, and demand time, and need loads of attention.  I’ll eventually have my time in the sun…and if fate should intervene, then at least I know that I’ve raised some magnificent human beings.
    Realize that nature weighs more heavily on women, and plan accordingly.
    Work towards having a pure and faithful heart, and a broadly educated mind.
    Recognize that no situation is so bad that it can’t be made worse by my actions.  In other words, de-escalate and solve vs, inflame and attack.
    Be meticulous about money, and buy used.
    End arguments by making up first, and THEN talk about the problem.  This has been my greatest insight into marriage and other intimate relationships.

  4. avatar Linda Myers says:

    Be respectful.
    Treat others the way you want to be treated.
    Be aware you are the example for your children.
    Do your part to respect the Earth.
    Always stretch and challenge yourself.
    Choose acceptance over tolerance.
    Karma is a bitch.

  5. avatar eleanore wells says:

    His list in no way resembles a list for living; not really living.  It’s more like a list for existing…without a lot of fun in one’s life.  Geez. 

  6. avatar TreeDweller says:

    I only try to live by three rules:

    1.  I accept that I am myself, my family, my gene pool, and my culture.  I am what they are.

    2.  If I manage to overcome, augment, improve upon, or enhance any of the above, that does not make me superior to anything or anybody.  It might make me wealthier or more comfortable; it might make me more merciful and kinder; it does not give me the right to be smug.

    3.  Love, humility, and forgiveness can only be felt; they cannot be engineered, orchestrated, or rationalized. 

    Have I mastered these things?  Of course not.  I’m not in heaven yet.

  7. avatar Ann Hipson says:

    Annie’s Rules for Life

    Make the bed everyday
    Tidy the kitchen before bed (I am an indifferent housekeeper at best except for these two rules.)
    No debt except for houses and cars
    Always have savings
    Be mannerly and polite
    Let cars merge into traffic ahead of my car
    Be pleasant
    Always do an activity suggested by a friend unless the activity is illegal, unethical, immoral, repugnant, unaffordable, or you have other plans.  (It’s amazing how many interesting things I’ve done since I adopted this rule.  Activities that I thought “I don’t think I’d like that” have turned out to be fun, like step dancing.)  You don’t have to do the activity again if you didn’t enjoy it.
    Never be rude to someone who can’t tell you to go to hell.  (This was one of my mother’s rules–you can be rude to your boss but you aren’t rude to your assistant, or a server in a restaurant, or the check out person at the store.)
    Never have more than two choices of breakfast cereal in the pantry at the same time.
    Always clear your own table when you have people over for dinner.  It saves time in the long run (well, also in the short run) and you will have fewer broken dishes and crystal.

    I probably have more rules.  I like making my own rules.  It saves time.  I don’t have to think “Should I make my bed this morning?”  The rule is to make it, so I do.  And only two types of breakfast cereal saves lots of time, no staring at a shelf and wondering “Oatmeal?  Cheerios? Raisin Bran? Wheat flakes?  Oatmeal?  Cheerios? Raisin Bran?  Wheat flakes?  Oatmeal? Cheerios? “

  8. avatar Tee Zee says:

    Laugh every day.

  9. avatar elaine s says:

    1.  Never weigh more than your own father.
    2.  Never buy a house older than you are.
    3.  Never marry anyone crazier than yourself.