By Laura A. Roser

The Anna Karenina Principle and Your Family

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” begins Leo Tolstoy’s classic work, Anna Karenina. Put another way, all happy families have mastered all elements that lead to a happy family. These elements include sexual attraction, financial health, parenting, spiritual beliefs, relationships with in-laws, and so on. Failure to master any one of these elements, however, compromises the health of the family.

A “good family” is therefore fragile because it must do well in all areas simultaneously. This principle was made popular by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he writes about animal domestication. According to Diamond, only a handful of animals can be domesticated because they must meet a list of attributes and, if one attribute is missing, the animal will not make a good pet.

Aristotle brought up a similar sentiment when he said, “For men are but good in one way, but bad in many.” His point was that it is easy to be virtuous in one or two ways, but to be a truly virtuous person, you must be virtuous in all ways—a feat few people have ever accomplished—leaving the world with very few, if any, truly virtuous people.

When you observe other families, they may have some things figured out that you don’t, but I’m guessing your family has mastered other items this supposedly-perfect family yearns for. And if there is ever a moment when you think to yourself, “I’ve got the best family in the world,” savor it as much as possible.

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Laura A. Roser is the founder and CEO of Paragon Road, the #1 authority in meaning legacy planning. For more information about meaning legacy planning services, visit