Eight rules promise wisdom and happiness

Teachings: “Everything we believe, summed up in eight brief points.”

Does life need rules? The School of Life says that you should “know your insanity” and “accept your idiocy”. But countless thinkers have tried and failed to convince us to follow rules before.

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” So says a famous Chinese proverb.

Philosophers and priests have spent millennia searching for the key principles of a good and satisfying life.

The London-based School of Life, founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, is a global organisation helping people to find perspective and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. It claims: “We’ve developed a range of tools to help you keep your mind occupied, stay connected with those you love, and secure the calm you deserve.”

Now, it has launched an ambitious project – to sum up all five million words of wisdom that is has ever published into eight short and simple rules. It recommends that we learn these rules by heart and think about them every day.

What are they?

For a comprehensive explanation in under 10 minutes, watch the short film in the first of our Expert Links. You will find that the rules remind us (among other things) that “no one is normal” and that “people do not end up with the lives they deserve”.

Though their realism is at times dark – “we don’t count one bit in the grander scheme” – these are balanced with the idea of empowerment: that thought “should be a liberation”.

Most optimistic of all is their pronouncement that: “Compatibility isn’t a prerequisite for love, it is the achievement of love.”

The School of Life’s rules offer a modern, mindful, and progressive way of addressing issues that have plagued thinkers for aeons.

In the Old Testament – and, therefore, at the heart of Jewish and Christian belief systems – are the Ten Commandments.

These range from “Thou shalt not steal” to warnings against idolatry.

In the 18th Century, Immanuel Kant laid out one fundamental moral law of relationships: never treat other people simply as a means to an end.

More recently, psychologists have focused on evidence that happiness is chiefly created by giving. Through MRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex.

Experiments show that altruism is hardwired in the brain. Helping others may be the secret to living a life that is not only happier, but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.

So, does life need rules?

Don’t do that

No. Firstly, we never keep them. Secondly, as we learn and grow, rules risk limiting our development, encouraging us to believe in other people’s thoughts. Each individual is unique. No one yet knows what the best life looks like.

Yes. The human psyche craves rules for a good reason. They sum up the tried and tested experience of past lives. More importantly, good rules do not demand obedience. They simply offer themselves for trial. If they work for you, you can make them your own.

You Decide

  1. Do we need more rules – or fewer?
  2. Can you think of any rules that have no exceptions?


  1. Write your own “three commandments” – three key rules that you would advise a friend to follow always.
  2. “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give” – Winston Churchill. Write a one-page essay reflecting on this statement.

Some People Say...

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish painter and artist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We need to go back over things. Maybe once a day, certainly once a week. Our memories are sieves, not robust buckets. What seemed a convincing call to action at 8am will be nothing more than a dim recollection by midday, and an indecipherable blur in our cloudy minds by evening. Nothing much sticks.
What do we not know?
Whether a life without rules could work. Nick Chater, a professor of Behavioural Science, writes: “Chess or football without rules wouldn’t be chess or football – they would be entirely formless and meaningless activities. Indeed, a game with no rules is no game at all.”

Word Watch

Thousands of years.
Seeing things in their proper scale. Being able to tell what is big and what is small.
The quality of toughness and flexibility that enables you to bounce back after setbacks.
The attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is; pragmatic.
In the grander scheme
The bigger picture. So that, when you put things in perspective, taking everything into account, sometimes what has previously been seen significant isn’t quite significant.
When two people get on together without problems or conflict.
An indefinite and very long period of time.
Old Testament
The first part of the Christian Bible, comprising 39 books, written around 1200-100BC.
The worship of idols or false gods.
Immanuel Kant
The central figure in modern philosophy. He brought together early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of 19th and 20th-Century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a medical imaging technique used in healthcare to form pictures of the anatomy and the physiological processes of the body.
A devotion to others.
The soul, mind, or spirit.

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