Lessons in Desire, Love and Purpose from Anna Karenina


Vronsky meanwhile, despite the full realisation of what he had desired for so long, was not fully happy. He soon felt that the realisation of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness that he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realisation of desires. At first, after he had united with her and put on civilian clothes, he felt all the enchantment of freedom in general, which he had not known before, and of the freedom of love and was content, but not for long. He soon felt arise in his soul a desire for desires, an anguish.

Pleasure does not come from the achievement of a goal, but from the movement towards one. It is the progress that gives us satisfaction and keeps driving us forward. We need to have areas in our life where we are progressing and moving towards clearly defined goals. It is not enough to say I want a good life. What does that mean for you? How would you have to act to achieve that? Only by identifying the ways you would need to act and having a clear goal in mind do you have something to work towards.

Humans need focus and progress, without it we are moving backwards. There is no middle ground, it is progression or regression. This unfortunate state of affairs exists as we live in an organic, living world. If we stand still, it will pass us by.

Goals are fleeting. When we achieve them, there is a momentary happiness and a sense of accomplishment. However, if we do not replace that gap, left by the fulfilment of a goal, with something else, we will stumble and regress.

What is more important than the goal are the systems and processes we put in place to achieve the goal. These will stay longer and more importantly will help us achieve future goals. There is value in the journey and this means that even when we fail to meet goals we will have improved and learnt something from the experience. Systems linger. The journey stays with us, but the result is fleeting.


It used to be that a freethinker was a man who had been brought up with notions of religion, law, morality, and had arrived at freethinking by himself, through his own toil and struggle. But now a new type of self-made freethinkers has appeared, who grow up and never even hear that there were laws of morality, religion, that there were authorities, but who grow up right into notions of the negation of everything — that is, as wild men.

We need to subject ourselves to rules and limitations and master them, before we can break rules. This is an idea that Picasso knew well. If we look at his earlier drawings, they were realistic and had no forms of abstraction. However, as he achieved mastery in this domain he was able to play with the rules and push them to the fullest extent. How much is necessary to convey that a face is a face? He was only able to play with this question as he had already mastered the rules. Picasso knew which rules he could break and which had to be kept. This is what true mastery is.

Mastery requires hours of practice and the humility to be disciplined. Humility to accept that there are rules to be followed and that there is value in subjecting ourselves to them. Before being a leader we must learn how to follow. Once we have learnt what it means to follow then we can move beyond and take full control.


Not only that, but he did not know what to say, how to look, how to walk. To speak of unrelated things seemed to him offensive, impossible; to speak of death, of dark things — also impossible. To be silent — also impossible. ‘If I look, I’m afraid he’ll think I’m studying him; if I don’t look, he’ll think I’m thinking of something else. If I walk on tiptoe, he’ll be displeased; if I stomp around, it’s embarrassing.’ But Kitty obviously did not think about herself and had no time to; she thought about him, because she knew something, and it all turned out well.

When we get lost focusing internally we lose track of what is important. Here, Levin is at his brother’s deathbed and all he can think about is himself. He is so consumed with worry and focusing the spotlight on his own actions and thoughts that he freezes and cannot be anything to his brother. He is nothing in this situation because all he thinks about is himself. Conversely, Kitty, Levin’s wife, has no time for herself, she does not get lost in thought, but jumps straight into action.

This is a recurring theme in Anna Karenina. The idea of action and where we focus our thoughts. When we think only of ourselves and how we are seen, we fall into shame, jealousy and anger. However, when we are able to get out of our own heads, it is then that we are able to take action. We no longer worry about whether what we are doing is useful or the right thing to do, we just act with determination and confidence that we will do the right thing.

A sure way to get free of crippling thoughts is to take action, even if it is just a small first step. Once we get going we realise that the fears and doubts we had were baseless.


‘What was he looking for in me? Not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity.’ She remembered his words, the expression on his face, like an obedient pointer, in the early days of their liaison. And now everything confirmed it. ‘Yes, there was the triumph of the successful vanity in him. Of course, there was love, too, but for the most part it was the pride of success. He boasted of me. Now it’s past. Nothing to be proud of. Not proud but ashamed. He took all he could from me, and I’m of no use to him any more.

Here we see another example of the dangers of over-thinking. Anna Karenina begins to analyse every detail of her relationship with Vronsky and this is instrumental in her eventual fall. She assumes the worst and diminishes her value, seeing herself as something for people to use. Now that she is spent she is useless, not only to him, but to society at large. She is an object of shame and undesirable. Unable to get out of her head she can’t see the value in her life, her children, her brother and her intellect. In her eyes she is nothing but an object that has served its purpose.

Vronsky too, according to Anna, is a victim of over-thinking. He was not seeking Anna out of genuine love, he was seeking her to boast. For Vronsky, Anna was a status symbol, something that he could show off. This is a danger that is easy to fall into as we aspire to goals, not for ourselves, but because we think that they will give us status in society.

Status chasing is the worst type of goal and brings nothing. Yes, there may be momentary prestige when we make an expensive purchase and we may draw admiration. But this is fleeting as we are outdone and interest moves elsewhere. More than that, is this the admiration we want? Do we want to be valued only for status symbols?

True value comes when you serve yourself, not your image, not society, but when you work to achieve goals that are good for you. It is so easy to fall into peer or family pressure, especially with social media. We look around and see lives that we want to have, but we only see what people want us to see. Further, we need to find our own interests, there is no off the shelf life that we can slot into. We need to find our own interests and build our lives around that. That is where we can find fulfilment, not in the projected lives of others online.


When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair; but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seemed to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely; recently he had even lived much more firmly and definitely than before.

Tolstoy ends Anna Karenina with an examination of how to find purpose in life, his mouthpiece for this being Levin. Levin realises the error of his ways: questioning and wondering how to lead a good life. He realised that he already knew how to live a good life, it was done by pursuing his interests and devoting himself to them. Acting in a manner where he worked honestly and did his best to do things well. When he paused and interrogated his actions or the meaning of his life, that is when he froze, that is when his problems arose.

We need to be engaged to find happiness. Pay attention to yourself, recognise when you are actively engaged. When time flies by. When you forget even to eat or drink. What are the things that keep you up at night and that you wake up thinking of in the morning? When you identify what these things could be, continue to do them, focus your life around them. The worst you will learn is that they aren’t what you are interested in long term and that you need to orient yourself towards a different set of interests.

It is only by experimenting that we will learn what our interests are. There is no one answer to how we should spend our life. It is up to us to discover it.

All quotes are from Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy.


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