The surprising benefits of rules

One of the interesting paradoxes in life is that having more rules actually leads to greater freedom and greater prosperity in most areas of life. There is a sense in which it is dangerous to say this because such rhetoric could easily be used by dictators and despotic rulers to justify their tyranny. Yet it is true that in many areas of life this is indeed the case. Let us look at a five such areas.

Rules in society make for a free and orderly society

Imagine if there were no rules on the road. Would it lead to greater freedom for vehicles or greater chaos? It is because we have traffic rules that a large number of vehicles can go on the road without all the drivers loosing their sanity. Every society has rules. Some may be more formal and rigid with their rules while others may be more flexible. Some rules are written and explicit while others are unwritten and implicit. But we all need rules.

Rules in science increases innovation

The scientific revolution was in large part possible due to the formalization of the rules of the scientific method. It is because the methodologies are formalized that a particular experiment could be replicated in other parts of the world and under different conditions that scientific experiments gain greater validity.

Rules in art increase creativity

The benefits of rules are not just limited to science. Art also has blossomed wherever rules exist. Consider the case of poetry. Japanese forms of poetry have rigid rules on the number of syllables that can be used and the themes that need to be addressed. Yet the breadth of creative expression that has come through tankas and haikus are extremely impressive. Even some of the best English poetry come within established rules of specific genres – sonnets or ballads or epics.

Rules in personal life lead to greater freedom

Habits would the more precise term to use in this context. However, they do function as some form of self-imposed rule. In fact, I will quote the book “Atomic Habits” once again, “If you’re always being forced to make decisions about simple tasks—when should I work out, where do I go to write, when do I pay the bills—then you have less time for freedom. It’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity.” (p 46) In fact, this is one of the reasons many successful people create routines even for basic tasks such as what clothes to wear and what time to work.

Rules in moral and spiritual life lead to greater happiness

There is a very interesting insight from the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. He quotes the writing of philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly in their book “All Things Shining” to show how the loss of sacredness lead to greater gains in the political arena but greater loss in the personal area.

From Descartes’s skepticism came the radical belief that the individual seeking certainty trumped a God or king bestowing truth. The resulting Enlightenment, of course, led to the concept of human rights and freed many from oppression. But as Dreyfus and Kelly emphasize, for all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the metaphysical this thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to creating meaning. In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. “The Enlightenment’s metaphysical embrace of the autonomous individual leads not just to a boring life,” Dreyfus and Kelly worry; “it leads almost inevitably to a nearly unlivable one.”

Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work”. Page 86

But if that is what gives meaning and happiness in life, what we need today is religion, the source of all truth and wisdom. If the God bestowing truth is indeed true and the source of all good, beholding the wonder of God and worshipping Him would lead to the utmost happiness.

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