Four great ways to find balance with lagom, the Swedish art of “just enough”
We live life to excess these days. We’re forever in pursuit of bigger, better, faster and more. But what would happen if we exercised a little restraint instead?
Sweden is regularly ranked one of the happiest countries on the planet, according to data from the World Happiness Report. Our neighbour to the north is famed for its world-class medical and social care available to all. But Swedes also attribute their contentedness to an important cultural value – lagom.
Meaning “not too much and not too little”, or “just right”, lagom is a central part of the Swedish national psyche that’s all about finding balance. In an age where most of us are geared to keeping up with the Insta-Jones, lagom brings with it a natural recognition of what is “too much”.
While some people have argued that Sweden is actually trying to shake off the famous reserve that lagom inspires, it remains a rare example of moderation in a world that deifies more. Not only that, but the ingrained tendency to achieve or obtain “just enough” changes its meaning in different settings. Here’s how you can use the value of lagom to find happiness in four key areas of life:
Be considerate in relationships
Lagom derives from the Viking tradition of “laget om”, meaning “the whole team around”. Our genial Viking ancestors would pass around helpings of meat and mead, taking just enough to ensure everyone got something. So lagom in relationships means being measured in a way that is considered and caring.
“People are actually kind and mindful of the people around them,” Swedish Londoner Sandra West, co-founder of the Blåbär cafe in Putney, tells Flash Pack. “It’s nice to be nice, and I think lagom is a huge part of that. Just being aware.”
This awareness is embodied in an informal rule known as “Jantelagen”, or “law of Jante”. Common to many Scandinavian countries, this societal code is based around the principle that “you are no better than anyone else”. People don’t brag about their achievements or show off their social status, because the focus is on everyone being equal. This, in turn, makes Sweden one of the world leaders in gender equality, with 46% of women represented in parliament (compared to 29% in the UK).
Lagom also reigns in self-expression and because of that it can sometimes be seen from an outside perspective as “Swedes just being cold”, says Lola Akinmade-Åkerström, a Nigerian-born writer who has lived in Sweden for the past 10 years (her experiences are captured in her book Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well).
But in fact, “lagom naturally keeps space and distance out of personal consideration for the other party”, she explains to English-Swede newspaper The Local. “[…] What makes it very Swedish (or Nordic) is just how often lagom pulls us from individual focus to group focus.” Sweden’s strong community ties, another reason for the nation’s celebrated happiness, are a byproduct of this focus.
Find balance at work
The “just enough” principle of lagom translates well in a work environment, too. It’s no coincidence that Sweden is considered a role model for work-life balance, with regular breaks, generous parental leave and an office day that finishes at 5pm or before.
“Throughout day, we always have 20 minute breaks in the morning and the afternoon,” says Sandra. “You go for coffee and have something sweet with it, usually a cinnamon bun.” This practice, known as “fika”, encourages levity between the demands of work and personal space, carving out time for you to relax beyond the mire of deadlines, emails and general hassle that punctuates a typical office day.
“The key is to stop whatever you’re doing and take some time out to enjoy the simple, good things in life,” Niki Brantmark, the author of Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living a Happy, Balanced Life, explains to Self.com. Normally you’d struggle to find this time. but in Sweden it’s a given part of work-life. “Coffee breaks are pretty much mandated,” Catherine Gilmore-Lawless, a Canadian-American medical professional living in Stockholm, tells Thrillist. “Everything drops. Not to be on their phone, but to converse with each other. You don’t mess with that fika time.”
This concept of protecting personal time extends to lunch breaks, too: “You would never eat lunch at your desk in Sweden, ever,” says Sandra. “You would always go out for an hour or two.” In a similar way, working overtime is not valued in Sweden; in fact, it’s more likely to be seen as a sign of poor time management. Employees in Sweden are productive but they also see the value of “not too much” work. The balance is met with long vacations, flexible hours and an emphasis on spending time with loved ones.
Live sustainably at home
Lagom is knowing when to stop; not being too fussy or over the top. And this ethic chimes nicely with the home, too. “Not too little, not too much” means living minimally, without excess clutter that ultimately makes your life more stressful and complicated.
“Swedes have a natural ability to maintain a minimalist, clean home,” lagom author Niki, who also writes the blog My Scandinavian Home, tells Homes and Property. “If you’re looking to achieve a simple, balanced way of life, have a good declutter. Work through your belongings and sell anything you don’t use or love. By having fewer pieces, you’ll not only see their beauty more easily, you’ll create more breathing space, feel more organised and even make a little money in the process!”
By honing down your belongings, you can focus on high-quality, more meaningful pieces that stand the test of time. “It’s about finding things that are simple and sustainable and kind of timeless – things that last,” says Sandra. This “less is more” approach means you sidestep the mass-produced, throwaway products that often end up in landfill; so the environmental impact is positive, too.
Not for nothing has Sweden seen a “recycling revolution” in the past 20 years, with the nation reusing 99 percent of locally produced waste. “Just enough” is a principle that lends itself naturally towards sustainable living. “Upcycling, recycling and using sustainable materials where possible is the way to enjoy the home comforts you love, without taking too much from the planet,” Catharina Bjorkman, marketing and style Director at Swedish stove manufacturer Contura, tells Country & Town House.
Be happy in yourself
Though lagom lends itself towards group wellbeing and cohesion, it also works on an individual basis. Everyone experiences lagom in a slightly different way depending on who they are; but ultimately, it means being content with your lot. Instead of being a “maximiser” who’s forever pushing for perfection (an out-of-reach illusion), you aspire to be moderate. And research shows that this mindset is more likely to lead to contentment on an individual basis, as well as encouraging sustainable behaviours that put less pressure on natural resource.
There’s something very freeing about letting go of that instinct to strive and create the life you think you should have. Lagom “is not about bigger and better and finding the best of something,” says Sandra. “You just feel at home and you can take a moment to relax.” By doing so, you stop looking to some imaginary goal; rather you remain rooted in the present with the attitude that, “what I have is good enough”.
“Lagom is most definitely a human principle because it pushes us to find our own individual levels of contentment, inner peace, and most natural operating state,” says Lola Akinmade-Åkerström.
“Living lagom taught me that life doesn’t need to be so damn complicated,” New Yorker Rachel Jacoby Zoldan writes on self.com. “That I can say ‘stop’ when I’ve done enough or taken on enough work […] Because I should get to relax and enjoy life’s pleasures—living lagom is about enjoying everything in moderation; a more healthy, balanced way of thinking.”
Are you ready to try out a little lagom in pursuit of a happier life? Find out more with our video, below.