Anna Hart discovers the Swedish art of “lagom” and its key themes of contentment, fairness, balance and appropriateness
As a society, Britain favours excess and eccentricity; we prefer our writers deliriously gin-soaked, our musicians debauched and our fashion designers delightfully barmy. And we extend our love of extremes into every sphere of life. We opt for the feast/famine rollercoaster of the 5:2 diet over slow-and-steady sensible eating, we book weeklong fitness boot camps rather than embarking upon sustainable thrice-weekly gym regimes, and we’ll take pride in pushing ourselves to breaking point in the office, so that we can spend our entire weekend in the pub moaning about how busy we are.
“Contentment, fairness, balance and appropriateness” aren’t exactly words that quicken many pulses. Most of us translate them as “gormlessness, servility and plain old dullness”. But 2017 might be the year that we finally cosy up to such concepts, as the curiously appealing Swedish ethos of “lagom” enters the popular consciousness.
Chef and author Brontë Aurell runs the Scandinavian Kitchen in London’s Fitzrovia with her husband Jonas. “The word “lagom” is Swedish but the concept itself is universally Nordic,” Brontë says. “It means not too much, not too little – just right. And it applies to absolutely everything, from coffee, to sweets, to clothing, to the car and the weather.”
“The word derives from a shortening of the phrase ‘laget om’, which literally means ‘around the team’, she explains. Lagom is ‘the median, the middle, the appropriate'”.
“Back in the Viking days, mead would be passed around, laget om, and everyone would take their sips,” she says. “Lagom today is not that different to that: There is something for everyone, if everyone just takes a lagom amount from the mead when it comes around.” Crucially, the foundation of lagom is contentment, a sense that things are sufficient just as they are. The archetypical Swedish proverb, “lagom är bäst”, literally means, “the right amount is best” but is also translated as “enough is as good as a feast” and “there is virtue in moderation”.
“Look at our fashion – it isn’t overstated or crazy,” Aurell continues. “From Filippa K to Acne, it’s all quite lagom. Our food is based on simple ingredients prepared beautifully. It’s the same with Scandi design: functional, stylish, simple and sustainable. When you spend £300 on a Danish design chair you expect it to last at least twenty five years.”
Lagom underpins all that we’ve come to admire in the Scandinavians: a lack of fussiness and pretentiousness, plenty of contentment and quiet confidence, functional architecture and pared-back design, modesty and wholesomeness, unfussy cuisine and an emphasis on the communal over the individual.
But I am Irish, and lagom did not come naturally to me. I grew up in a country where gluttony is just good manners, excess is encouraged, showing-off is how we communicate and really, the only time we’re content is when we’re drunk.
But recently I’ve started to long for a simpler, fairer, less complicated and more contented life. Living in small flats in London for the past 10 years made me appreciate the compact, functional simple nature of Scandinavian design; my flat wasn’t big enough for a vast leather Chesterfield sofa, but a Sixties Kai Lyngfeldt Larsen leather two-seater squeezed in beautifully.
More Scandinavian furniture followed; and then, it seems, my sofa started to rub off on me. I reined in my maximalist tendencies and whittled my vast vintage wardrobe down to a suitcase that could be stashed in a friend’s spare room while I travelled the world on writing assignments. A more lightweight, lagom attitude to my belongings gave me something more precious than a wardrobe full of Mulberry handbags: freedom. Freedom to travel, to seize spontaneous work opportunities, and freedom from the distracting desire to consume.
“Freedom to travel, to seize spontaneous work opportunities, and freedom from the distracting desire to consume”
And lagom crept into my life in other ways; during my 30s, as I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin, I no longer feel the pressure to be the main act at a party. I’m content to be part of the chorus line, contributing to the fun but not feeling solely responsible for it. I’ve lost my lust for the limelight, as well as material possessions. And crucially, I don’t see this as fading into the background, becoming a wallflower, “settling” for less or suppressing my desires and ambitions. I see it as a smarter and more sustainable approach to maximising my happiness and the happiness of those around me.
Dr Jessamy Hibbert is a clinical psychologist, and co-author of the This Book Will Make You… series. “In a world where we now have access to anything any time, lagom represents a welcome antidote,” she says. “We all need to recognise that contentment tends not to be from having things. It’s an internal state and it’s the simple things that make you feel it. Lagom is a break from the business or constantly checking our phone, driving forward and being ‘on’. Time to unplug and switch off is so important for us, for our wellbeing, our relationships and our creativity.”
Step one to a life more lagom, according to Aurell, is to think more about the group than the individual – and realise that actually what’s best for the group might also be best for you as an individual. “I am Scandinavian, so of course my entire life has been about appreciating that in a society, you need to be fair and look after each other. While I love living in the UK, central to everything we do in Scandinavia is the idea that there is a shared pot (our high taxes) that ensure that we have a massively broad middle class – and not extremes of wealth. The shared pot of money that allows us to live a lifestyle we value – from the generous parental leave to the healthier working hours, quality medical care and care for the elderly.”
Johan’s wife, Carey, runs a Swedish café, Mala Kaffe, in Margate, Kent. “After ten years in a relationship with a Swede my views have changed; from living a more consumer lifestyle, obsessed with material things that I thought defined me, to letting go of those desires. I still love to have nice things around me – but the desire to be the ultimate consumer has gone. I’ve learned so much about sustainability. Swedes have a natural desire to protect nature and work with it.”
Mala Kaffe, Margate
Carey still remembers the moment she realised just how enviably comfortable the Swedes are with their own bodies. “When I visited Johan’s parents’ summer home, the evening I met them we all wound up naked in a sauna. And in Malmö I went to the outdoor sauna and swimming pool, where all the girls – all different shapes and sizes – were walking around totally naked with not a care in the world. Also, I am yet to meet a Swede that has an obvious Botox face.”
For Swedes, lagom is a lifestyle, a habit of mind. “The best way to form new habits is to practise every day, at the same time, in the same way,” says Dr Hibberd. “I also advise clients to attach new healthy habits to those already formed. As you brush your teeth, think about what you’re grateful for. Life is changed by mastering small healthy habits, not by one big unsustainable push.”
After the global ructions of 2016, this Scandinavian impetus for restraint and simplicity feels like a breath of fresh air. And lagom is very much in the air in 2017. Vogue has taken note. All this year, the Southbank Centre is celebrating Scandinavian ideas, cuisine and culture in its Nordic Matters programme. New Nordic cuisine – pioneered by Copenhagen’s Noma – is not new to the UK. But arguably a better representation of Scandinavian lagom is found in the simple everyday tradition of “fika”.
“I fell in the love with the tradition of fika so opening a Scandi café seemed like an exciting venture,” says Carey. “Technically fika means to have coffee and a snack, but it’s so much more than that; it’s a special break that is taken to not only enjoy coffee and a bun, but to catch up with friends and family. The nearest thing to fika in the UK is probably a ‘coffee/tea break’, but grabbing a mug of tea and taking it to your desk doesn’t really capture the essence.”
Central to fika is the Swedish aversion to working for longer than you should. “In the UK it’s all about working longer and harder to get status and money. In Sweden that’s frowned upon – it’s fine to pop out for fika, or take the summer off work with your family.”
So, my new year’s resolution for 2017 is a gloriously simple – sorry, lagom – one. To make friends with fika.
“Moderation doesn’t mean you have to follow a singular line all the time and it doesn’t have to be boring,” says Aurell. “Take the super Scandi tradition of “lördagsgodis” – “Saturday Candy”. This day of the week is when we eat sweets. You should see the piles of pick’n’mix we sell in our café on Fridays and Saturdays.”
Another key tenet of lagom is sustainability, and respect for resources. Nine years ago, Stockholm native Tove Westling founded Varg, a London-based fashion PR firm specialising in Scandinavian labels. “Sustainability is a focus for many Swedish brands,” Westling says. “Gudrun Sjödén were pioneers of eco fashion since the brand launched back in the Seventies. It’s that balance, weighing the lighter side of life against the consequences of consumption.”
Sustainable thinking is big in Swedish life – and coming here too. Ikea has launched its Live Lagom Project in the UK, a sustainability initiative with the University of Surrey and the charity Hubbub. And Sam and Elliott Stocks, from Bristol, publish the lifestyle magazine Lagom. “Although neither of us are Scandinavian, we’ve long been admirers of Scandi culture; that healthy balance of work and play,” says Elliott.
“The philosophy of lagom is beautifully simple, and offers an alternative to the idea of ‘always seeking the next best thing’,” adds Sam. “Our modern lives can often gear our minds toward the quest for more. The philosophy of lagom encourages an overarching balance across our lives: everything in moderation.”
Of course, lagom isn’t the only newfound Nordic notion that Britain has pounced on this year. Poor “hygge”; it was just for Christmas 2016. In Britain, we giddily seized upon this distinctly Danish definition of cosy contentment, but the avalanche of hygge-themed books and twee festive adverts for slippers and loungewear smothered our enthusiasm. Hygge is back out in the cold with the dead Christmas trees. But lagom seems more… sustainable.
That isn’t easy; I sense that every Swede has a more complicated relationship with the word lagom than they first admit. “I moved to London when I was nineteen, and I think a lot about me has never wanted to be just lagom,” Johan reflects. “Maybe I’ve been fighting not to be lagom my whole life, like a unruly teenager revolting, but I have grown up to realise lagom is very important part of a sane walk through life.”
Aurell suggests that Lagom has roots in the Jante Law, a Nordic version of Tall Poppy Syndrome. “Although it’s more an ethos of ‘don’t make others look bad’,” she says. “It’s about staying inside social norms: not going without, but also not displaying wealth, eating too much cake or being a show-off.”
Westling wonders if lagom is a friend or enemy to creativity. “I’m all about balance to create a happy life, but to me, doing something in a lagom way means not taking too many risks, not indulging in any way or wanting to stand out from the crowd. And personally I enjoy taking risks as I believe that is how you grow and live life to the fullest. Perhaps it’s me rebelling against all those years of living in lagom-land!”
So let’s accept lagom with caution, and modesty. Perhaps the key to living a life more lagom lies in lagom itself: moderation. And maybe Ireland does have something to teach the Swedes after all. Because as Oscar Wilde put it: “Everything in moderation. Especially moderation.”
Anna Hart writes for The Telegraph