Looking longingly toward Nordic cultures for solutions to our problems is practically a cottage industry at this point. Between Scando design principles (more light, less stuff); sustainability initiatives (The Netherlands have figured out how to feed us all); education (Norwegian forest schools, anyone?); and health (Finland invests in public saunas), there’s plenty to love. (And if you are a taller, more full-figured lady like me, I implore you to check out Swedish fashion; comfy, colourful, and proportionally smarter than American brands by a mile.)
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And then there are the lifestyle concepts. First there was hygge, which sold 10 thousand beeswax candles and fluffy throws as people got cosy, Danish-style; then there was the lesser-known Friluftsliv – direct translation from the Norwegian means “free air life” and equals a cultural commitment to outdoor appreciation. And now, we have lagom.
Meaning “not too much, not too little” or “just enough”, lagom’s Goldilocks-ian ideals encompass all parts of life, not just design or food or celebrations. Sweden is the lagom country, and as Anna Brones writes in her new book, Live Lagom: Balanced Living the Swedish Way, “Applying a sense of lagom to our everyday lives – in what we eat, what we wear, how we live, how we work – might just be the trick for embracing a more balanced, sustainable lifestyle that welcomes the pleasures of existence rather than those of consumption.”
Read on to learn how this Swedish concept might serve as a way to navigate life – wherever you are on the planet.
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In Your Community (Or Government)
Importantly, lagom isn’t just about the personal. Part of how it’s understood in its home country involves the greater community – something many of us are thinking about more these days. How do we bring people together, and ensure that there’s enough for all?
The notoriously social-minded Swedes have thought it through, and lagom is part of their answer: “Swedish culture is very much based on the good of the whole,” Brones told Lifehacker. “I think the essence of lagom within Swedish culture comes very much from the ideals of community and social well-being, the idea that I don’t take too much because then my community doesn’t thrive.”
Put another way, lagom – the idea that nobody has too much and nobody has too little (but everyone has a lagom amount of wealth – enough) – gets to the heart of Sweden’s social welfare state. Child care, education through university, health care and elder care are guaranteed to all citizens, evening the playing field and making sure nobody falls too far behind. These initiatives sound expensive, but it pays for itself via higher labour-force participation (more than 80 per cent of Swedish women work, as opposed to 58 per cent of American women) and a healthy, well-educated populace which produces more income and costs less in the long run.
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On the Job
In the US, we see working long hours as proof of commitment and dedication to both our bosses and our personal career goals. If we’re not working too much, we’re not working enough; a pervasive attitude that leads to the majority of workers not even taking the meagre minimal vacation days American workers receive.
In Sweden, however, working beyond your normal hours is seen as being inefficient – you must be bad at your job if you need to work 60+ hours a week or can’t take the five weeks of holiday that the average Swedish workers gets. (Meanwhile, Sweden’s per capita Gross Domestic Product is 11th in the world; for all our overwork, the US is only a couple steps above, at number 8.)
It’s interesting to think about how social framing devices really can change how we think about the world, and this is where lagom comes in handy. Changing how we fundamentally understand work as a society can have far-reaching implications — all the way to the top: “Because Swedish society primarily runs on [Lagom], it’s easier for government policies that support work-life balance to be put in place and proactively supported,” Lola Akinmade Åkerström, a Stockholm-based photographer represented by National Geographic Creative and author of “LAGOM: The Swedish Secret of Living Well” told Lifehacker. “Think about it — anything that can reduce stress like adequate planning, consensus, concision, fairness, flat work structures, etc. — is often synonymous with Swedish business culture.”
Integrating lagom into your worklife could take a variety of forms: If you know you spend too much time working, remember that in a lagom mindset, that means you are inefficient at your job. Are you? If so, change up your thinking first — more time at the office doesn’t mean you’re “better” at your job — and just as importantly, don’t judge other people that way, either. If you actually have more work than can reasonably be done in 40 hours a week, talk to your boss about that. If you are self-employed, are you working yourself too hard just to make a bit more money? Is it possible to live with less?
And if you tend to be your own worst enemy in terms of overwork, set limits for yourself about number of hours you put in by ensuring you leave the office at a certain time most days. Make plans (a class, dinner with friends, a date with your dog for quality park-time) to get to a lagom work-life balance. Certainly, taking all the vacation you’re owed, as well as using all your sick days each year will help you to live fully in both your real life and your work life. Think about going further — what if you took a week’s unpaid leave on top of your regular vacation?
Both adults and teenagers in the U.S. suffer from mental-health issues related to stress, and it has far-reaching consequences, including reduced productivity and less happiness than our incomes suggest we should have, all of which can affect our physical health, too. Åkerström points out that we in the U.S. “fight through stress while trying to be productive,” but there’s another way to address the issue — the Swedes “prioritise fighting stress first so they can be productive.”
Fighting stress before it starts means that you don’t wait until you are sick to take a day off — you plan for regular breaks and take them, per the work-life balance ideas above. Why not take a half-day off not for a doctor’s appointment once you’re ill, but instead, to wake up late and get brunch and massage when you’re feeling fine? It also means exercising regularly (not obsessively, because that’s not lagom either; think long walks listening to podcasts or chatting with a friend); cooking yourself a healthy dinner just because; or seeing a local play, comedy or musical performance.
“The lagom mindset doesn’t like stress and so it proactively works to reduce stress first,” said Åkerström. “Imagine we all had internal scales within us. Having too much or too little causes stress, so lagom tries to balance that scale within us,” she said. Think about where your life is out of balance and what would bring it more in line.
Swedish design has already had a huge impact on home decor in the U.S. and around the world; that light-and-bright, wood and natural-materials-heavy aesthetic is appealing and inexpensive, with IKEA being the standard-bearer. But according to the experts, lagom is much more than the way a home looks. Things should either have a “functional value or a deeply sentimental value,” explains Åkerström, adding that anything that falls outside those categories is excess. “A lagom home is one that is lived in and used. It’s a cosy, comfortable, inviting space that you feel good in,” said Brones.
So it’s less about the style of your decorating than the overall feel of your home. If Swedish design isn’t your cup of tea, you can still have a lagom living room: “Lagom and the American idea of moderation are quite similar,” said Brones. “I think where it differs though is that in the U.S., moderation is often seen as a bad thing; if we are thinking about moderation we are thinking about what we are needing to get rid of. But lagom has a more positive aspect to it.”
The lagom way of decorating is not filling a new room with stuff all bought right away when you move, but adding to it slowly over time — or maybe leaving some places open and empty. Instead of getting rid of stuff, what if you never bought it to begin with? If you do want to declutter, lagom could be a way to shift your mindset from “I need to get rid of this stuff” to “I’m looking forward to having more space to stretch and dance in my living room.”
At the heart of lagom is the true meaning of sustainability — the ability to sustain a high quality of life for all over generations, not just a few years at a time of boom followed by long busts, as we have all experienced over the last 20 years. That’s why the community aspect of the idea is so important. “If we all live a little more lagom now, it ensures that a lot more people can live lagom in the future,” says Brones. “So instead of living as large as we can, scaling back a bit for the betterment of society as well as future generations. I think in the US we tend to have a ‘go big or go home’ attitude towards things, and lagom is very much the opposite of that.”
This is where all the aspects of lagom come together. Working less means less stress, which is likely to result in greater happiness, and less need for retail therapy — easier on our planet’s limited resources — leading to more time spent with friends, family, travelling, or whatever makes your heart sing.
If, as Åkerström said, “Undue pressure comes from trying to maintain lifestyles we can’t sustain,” then living lagom can work holistically to improve life overall.
Maybe it’s the absolutely bonkers new cycle we’re in the midst of right now, or maybe we’ve just reached Peak Info generally, but almost everyone I know is looking for ways to find balance in their lives. Lagom might be a simple, legit way to check in with yourself and the people around you to keep sane and healthy in all aspects of life.