Hygge, the Danish concept of coziness and contentment, recently took the world by storm, causing many of us to invest in warm socks, candles, and loads of hot chocolate. Still obsessed with the Scandinavians, people are now moving onto the Swedish lifestyle word: lagom. Loosely translated, it means “not too much and not too little,” the just-right amount of everything.
Books and articles are already flooding the market, telling us how we can live a life of lagom. Sweden ranks in the top ten when it comes to happiest countries, and many wonder if it’s their balanced approach to life that gives them the edge. Others worry that lagom will fizzle out in countries where moderation and thinking of the whole over the individual have never been the norm.
Like hygge, lagom encapsulates gratitude because it’s about contentedness in any season. Unlike hygge, lagom is not as sexy or indulgent. It’s easy to want to drink that extra cup of coffee or to take a break in the middle of the day and enjoy a book, hygge-style. It’s less appealing to consider giving up excesses in the name of lagom.
This may be the reason lagom is not being met with the unbridled enthusiasm of hygge. For every article extolling its benefits, there’s another one from a jaded author begging the world not to follow in Sweden’s middle-of-the-road footsteps.
What, if anything, can lagom offer us when it comes to balanced living? Is it a good concept for our kids to embrace?
Minimalism, but not exactly
Lagom has been described as minimalism, but in the just-the-right amount way. Whether it’s putting together capsule wardrobes, contemplating working overtime, or deciding how much dessert to eat, lagom guides Swedes in decision-making so they err on the side of moderation.
It’s not a bad idea to teach kids moderation as a guiding principle. Many developed countries raise children who live with constant excess in their lives, and parents worry about children growing up thinking only of themselves and no one else. Lagom’s focus on the group, and on only taking your portion and no one else’s, is both wise and considerate. The current interest in minimalism and simplicity in the States is evidence that this might be the perfect time for lagom.
The environmental impact of lagom is also positive. Buying less, wasting less, and using what you have are excellent ways to live sustainably and live lagom. Growing a garden, buying locally, and only purchasing the right number of needed items teaches kids that living with less can be more.
An attitude of moderation even carries over to relationships and how Swedes interact with each other, and this is where questions about the benefits of the concept arise.
Lola Akinmade-Åkerström, author of “Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well,” says that adjusting to lagom was difficult at first. Having lived previously in both Nigeria and the United States, she wasn’t prepared for the way that the concept of lagom could make ex-pats feel like Swedes were simply distant and cold. The gregariousness and boasting of her former cultures was gone, and that left a lot of quiet. It took time for her to understand that this was simply a side effect of the lagom–approach to relationships.
Others aren’t as kind when talking about lagom in social interactions. When Richard Orange wrote a piece about lagom, he called it his “adopted country’s suffocating doctrine of Lutheran self-denial.” He bitterly claimed that lagom means “being moderate in personality, views, and politics,” leaving those who are outside of the norm or who live more passionate lives feeling ostracized from those who practice lagom.
Benefits of relational lagom
There are some landmines to sidestep when trying to incorporate lagom into relationships and social interactions. However, it can still be beneficial. Lagom squashes comparisons and boasting behavior. It’s the opposite of keeping up with the Jones’. It instead shifts the focus to making sure we’re not taking a slice of what the Jones’ should have, be it time to speak or items to own.
Akinmade-Åkerström says with time, she even felt comfortable with the silence that emerged when everyone wasn’t bragging about their accomplishments. “It feels liberating not to have to wear your accomplishments on your sleeve.”
It’s a cool kind of confidence we want for ourselves and our kids, the be-proud-of-yourself-and-don’t-constantly-seek-outside-approval type. There’s no striving to be loved for what we can do or what we own. Living lagom means we don’t teach our kids that having more, doing more, or bragging often is what makes them loved.
Living the right amount of lagom
The key to successful lagom may be applying it in, well, a lagom-like manner. Anna Brones, author of “Live Lagom: Balanced Living, The Swedish Way,” says her Swedish mother moved to the United States in part to escape lagom. Her mother found lagom to be “less about balance and more about the social equalizer; the thing that restrained you, kept you from being able to fully express who you were and what you wanted.” Her mother was an artist, so she found this definition of lagom particularly confining.
Still, Brones says that lagom crept into her family’s life in the way they ate, the way they interacted with the environment, and what they purchased. Her mother lived lagom in many ways without realizing it, and it became a normal way of life for Brones, one she appreciated.
Akinmade-Åkerström says the secret to lagom is to define it as optimal, to be used when the time is right in the way that works. “My personal lagom isn’t your personal lagom,” she notes.
We have to make our own decisions about when lagom is right for the situation and when it’s not, as well as what just-right is to us. This helps keep the lagom concept a guide, not a straitjacket confining our every move.
If balance and moderation are goals, lagom has a lot to offer. It can be applied to how often we engage in technology, consume sugar, or stay late at work. In its best form, lagom is the magic of good enough, knocking out the compulsion to work harder, do more, and never be satisfied in any area of life. Lagom, with its message of good enough, just might be the word we need.