Do You Agree with Tolstoy’s Rules of Life?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz day.

This Wednesday: 10 “Rules of Life” from Tolstoy.

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 never did finish, because I found Tolstoy so maddening, Troyat includes an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life.” Tolstoy wrote these rules when he was eighteen years old.

Some of these rules are daily habits of life, and some are more like Personal Commandments. From my own experience, I think it’s helpful to distinguish between different types of life “rules.”

Given my current obsession with habits, for the book I’m writing about habit-formation, I was very interested in the habits that Tolstoy wanted to cultivate. (If you want to know when my masterpiece about habits goes on sale, sign up here.)

Here’s a partial list of Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life”:

-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?

Gold star for anyone who can find the complete list online. I looked everywhere, but so far, no luck. One of these days I’ll have to go get Volume 46 of the Tolstoy Complete Works from the New York Public Library.

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  • M

    I think one should always be wary of life rules written at 18!

    • Mimi Gregor

      Indeed! I actually laughed at the part where Gretchen mentioned he wrote them at eighteen! If I had written a list of rules to live by when I was that age, I shudder to think what may have been on it. An even scarier proposition would be if I had actually tried to live my life according to said list. But perhaps Tolstoy was much more serious at that age than I was. My list at that age would be the exact opposite of everything he had on his list.

      • gretchenrubin

        It would be interesting to have a list from every ten years of your life, or at different moments.

        • Gillian

          Indeed it would, Gretchen. I have always lived by a moral code but I made my first written commandment list only at the age of 62, shortly after retiring and immediately after reading your book. When reviewing it recently after one of your posts, only 3 years after the original, I made quite a few changes. As we grow, learn and experience life, our ideas and direction change. I think everyone should be encouraged to make a list early in life and review it every few years, especially at life’s milestones. It would make an interesting history to look back on.

          Tolstoy’s list was amazingly mature for an 18 year old!

    • Still Wondering

      They sound like they were written by an 18 year old. Some of them make sense but, as a whole, seem restrictive. He seemed afraid of living.

    • I don’t know. I wouldn’t judge so quickly either positively or negatively, just because he wrote his list at 18. I think a lot of what I learned was in my earlier teenage years, when my sister was born. We’re 12 years apart, so by the time I was 18 I had spent 6 years learning to be her mentor and guardian. She taught me a lot of important lessons and guiding principles.

      Keep in mind too that the times were different back then for Tolstoy. For “trying to do everything by yourself,” perhaps he wanted to have privacy from his multiple siblings (he was the youngest of four boys), and perhaps he was also extroverted in nature. “Always live less expensively than you might” was perhaps an aspiration, a way of trying to address his tendency to take things to excess, like his gambling and partying while he was studying.

      I like his list. From what I could tell, it was the best he was trying to do given the life he had. And that’s admirable.

    • Leslie Rieger

      I wrote a list of rules to be a writer when I was about 11 and every one of them is backed up by current writing advice you can find online and in craft books today. Not quite the same as life rules, I’ll grant you, but sometimes it’s amazing the wisdom you can find by revisiting your younger self. Which is not to say one shouldn’t revise rules for living as one gains more life experience – always good to reevaluate!

      I do, however, agree with Still Wondering that some of his rules seem quite restrictive. I suppose following them religiously might have made him the kind of man he thought he should be, but it seems unlikely it would bring much happiness.

  • Gillian

    I like the last two: Always live less expensively than you might and Change nothing in your style of living even if you become ten times richer. If we all lived that way, the world would be a better place, people would be a lot happier and there would be a lot less personal debt.

    While life rules written at 18 might not contain a lot of wisdom, I think that everyone in that phase of life should indulge in this exercise. The rules are not cast in concrete and should be reviewed and revised as one experiences life and grows and learns.

    The act of thinking about and making the list makes a young person consider the values he wants to live by. Even as the rules change over time, a life with a deliberate set of guiding values is infinitely better than one lived without such direction. One can avoid a lot of poor decisions this way.

    • Lynn

      I agree, Gillian. 🙂 Good points.

  • Writing thoughts on how to live is helpful because sometimes we need time to reflect and seeing things written down helps them sink in. Those ‘rules’ are a bit strict for me, but I like it that he tried, and I’m sure they worked for Tolstoy!


  • There are definitely some odd ones here (e.g. “Keep away from women” and “Try to do everything by yourself”), but it was a different time I suppose.

    The last two are great rules to live by…wise for an 18 year old for sure.

    The most interesting to me was #5 (setting goals), especially the last part about sacrificing less important goals for the more important ones. That’s crucial.

    • Gillian

      “Keep away from women” was probably because Tolstoy was gay. That would have made life very difficult in those days.

      • gretchenrubin

        No. That was not Tolstoy’s reason for making that addition to his list!

        • Gillian

          Oops, my apologies! I was getting my Russians mixed up. It was Tchaikovsky who was gay. Rena’s explanation makes perfect sense.

      • Visitor


  • Rena

    I’m not an expert on Tolstoy, but I do read some Russian and these translations are misleading. He said, “Don’t ask for assistance for anything you can complete yourself,” which is quite different from “Try to do everything by yourself”, which can and has been interpreted here as Do everything in isolation/alone. He was also a hedonist and a handsome and wealthy count, and at age 18 he’d already found himself in a lot of trouble due to his relationships with women, who took up a large part of his mental and physical energy. So “Distance yourself from women,” did not mean he was a misogynist.

    I took a quick look at his diaries in the original. He was constantly trying to reign himself in and organize his life to preserve his thinking and writing time, and to practice the behaviors he thought important by making all kinds of rules and schedules for himself. He needed Gretchen! But Gretchen needs better info on him and his struggles and what his intentions were. Gretchen, read his diaries!

  • PolarSamovar

    I think these are pretty good rules for a privileged 18-year-old.

    Gretchen convinced me to work a bit on my own life rules. Occasionally I’ll run across an old set of goals, and it always surprises me how similar they are to my new ones. It feels pretty good to realize that with all life’s ups and downs, I’ve been pretty consistent in my intentions; even though I might prioritize one or the other at different times.

    It also feels good to see that although it sometimes feels like I’ve been hurling my energy at the same problems since I was 23, in truth, I have made a lot of progress. Yes, I still have challenges, and some of them look remarkably like the challenges I faced in my twenties. But I that’s because I am the same person, with the same values. Not because I haven’t achieved any goals in the last 20 years.

  • Jeanne

    Stay away from women and do everything yourself (as if that were even possible)! The guy had issues! Think I’ll look elsewhere for life guidelines 😉

  • Randee Bulla

    I agree with some of the goals, they seem pretty mature for 18 (living below means and getting your sleep). But others just seem like he was trying to control parts of his life by being strict and straight and narrow with himself and don’t sound very sustainable, or at least not sustainable while also enjoying your life.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    “Keep away from women” and “kill desire by work” seem to me to be rules that are no longer relevant in a world that has (in our nation at least) has mostly learned a different approach to sexual morality. Those irrelevancies aside, I think that the self denial and self control implicit in a lot of this rulemaking is quite extraordinary and exemplary for such a young man.
    I think that the admonitions to live below one’s means are interesting for a member of the landed gentry (essentially slave-holding) class of his time. The admonition to plan and have goals was no doubt exceptional for a young man with financial backing and ‘expectations.’ In the 19th Century, and particularly in Russia, youth were often regarded (see Eugene Onegin) as the ‘lenivii cheloveki” (useless men) who had no other role than to be wastrels and throw away their families fortunes on gambling and other frivolities. The seriousness reflected here is quite exceptional.
    However, one must also–knowing a little of the man’s biography–remember that this starchiness and restrictiveness was often visited on others while the man’s own ego was fed plentifully on his own pride of self. A great resolve does not make a great life. Tolstoy, I beleive, was a person more wisely respected for his good intentions than for his actually good practices. Ask his wife, if you could, and she might have other views of the probity of this young man.
    What do I take from this list of rules? Precisely that we intend and aim better than we achieve, most times. We should intend well, and be flexibile with ourselves and others when we are not able to live as well as we intend. We should certainly not throw up a lot of foolish rules about sex that won’t help us!

  • Jennie Wong

    I agree with more of these rules than I expect to! Avoid sweets, have a goal, and live beneath your means. Good stuff. My favorite rule/quote is from Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life, that you may be violent and original in your work.”

  • After I got over my astonishment of finding Tolstoy on a happiness blog (I find him wildly depressing :D:D) I thoroughly enjoyed the list, especially with Rena’s explanation – it sounds like he was course correcting.

    Turns out his version of early to bed early to rise is bang on the money as I recently discovered 🙁 Not doing so leads to adrenal fatigue, google it – I can attest…

    I DO particularly like “Be good, but try to let no one know it” My favourite version of this advice is by Thomas Carlyle: “The work of an unknown good person is like a vein of water flowing hidden underground secretly making the ground greener”

  • PNW Gal

    I just started reading War and Peace this summer. Reading on the internet, I learned that the character of Pierre represents Tolstoy’s own thoughts about the world, true or not, in the first volume, it was excruciating to read the chapters with him in it –they were driving me crazy. 570 pages in, he still is my least favorite character in his thoughts, actions and most importantly in his passivity. If indeed his is representative of Tolstoy’s thought process I would find him maddening to read about too.

  • Sandra

    Tolstoy’s Rules for Life don’t seem to be a list of rules for happiness, because everyone knows family and friends are the major component of happiness. Did Tolstoy state what he wanted most out of life? I do like his mentioning of goals because while we are going after them our lives happens.

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  • alex vlasy

    most of them you find in the Chinese Taijiquan – but of course (true) and particularly enlightening: STAY AWAY FROM WOMEN !

  • abdelhadi

    I read the above note of Tolstoy and the rules of his life , I do not agree on most of them , I find him anti-social , against teamwork and over in all his perspectives.
    But really I miss a lot of valuable things because I did not write or actually could not write my rules of my life.
    And even if I had written them , as I was moving too much in my life , they would have been lost like a lots of my things.Most of the time relying on my instincts
    But generally without written rules I am satisfied .