In Sweden there is an idea called “lagom” (law-gum). Directly translated, using the incredibly accurate Google Translate, “lagom” means “moderate.”
I was intrigued by this concept of moderation, so I decided to do a little more research about the history of the word. The word comes from the Viking period between the 8th and 11th centuries. The Vikings had the word “laget om” directly translated to “around the team.” The concept was most common when a group of Vikings were sharing a horn of honey wine. They would say “laget om” to indicate that everyone should get their fair share: not too much, not too little.
When you talk to Swedish people, they all describe it a little differently. Some people talk about the idea of moderation, saying how it is important that everything — work, consumption, drinking, etc — be done in moderation. Other people say it is about doing things “just right” or the “appropriate” amount. In a nutshell, lagom seems to be about finding a balance in life.
After learning about this concept, I began to see it in different parts of Swedish culture. I see it in their work schedules, where they are less likely to work more than 40 hours a week. I see it in their portion sizes, which like most places in the world are much smaller than those in the U.S. I see it in their welfare state, where everyone has the right to health care, education, housing and more. Lagom is everywhere in Swedish society.
In the past few years the idea of lagom has caught on globally. In January 2017 Vogue published an article called “Forget Hygge: 2017 Will Be All About Lagom,” which talked about how lagom and moderation will take over as a hip marketing and lifestyle trend, replacing the Danish hygge, which is all about coziness. They cited marketing campaigns by Ikea and the popularity of 1.5 percent milk, the Goldilocks of all milks.
In another article called “Make a Nordic New Year’s Resolution: Bring the Swedish Art of Lagom Into Your Life,” Vogue recommended doing things such as “simplify your wardrobe” and “leave your desk for lunch.” I don’t doubt that doing some of the things Vogue recommends can help improve many people’s lives outside of Sweden, but I see lagom as something bigger.
More than anything, Lagom is a mindset in Sweden. It represents an inherently different set of values than many people have in the U.S. Lagom is not something that the Swedes practice on their own — it is something they practice as a society. Sweden’s government values equality and the environment, which trickles down to affect the values of its citizens. I believe that these national values help propel lagom lifestyles among Swedes. Although it is possible to have lagom on a more personal level, lagom is so successful in Sweden because it is done on a societal level. When adopting lagom on a personal level, one has to be aware of the societal pressures around them.
It is very difficult to live a life of balance when you are in a society that is so unbalanced. The reason many Swedes have been able to continue to abide by the values of lagom, however they may define them, is because they live in a society that values equality and moderation. Reading about the concept of lagom and observing the actions of the Swedes has shown me the importance of societal values.
Take Swarthmore for example. The idea of lagom could easily be applied to say that students at Swarthmore should have more balance in their lives. Students at Swarthmore would be better off if they could find a balance between academic, extra-curricular, and social activities. But this is hard to do in an environment that puts so much emphasis on one thing: academics. The values of Swarthmore seem to be in conflict with one another; many people say they care about their overall well-being, but their actions often do not match their intentions.
Swatties could probably learn a lot from lagom. We often complain about how unbalanced our lives are and how much time we spend on work. But in order to truly adopt the idea of lagom, Swatties would have to do more than just spend less time doing work. The campus would have to change its values, maybe even change what we see as success or achievement. This is no easy task. As I said earlier it is hard for one individual to embody values different from those around them. But I think it is possible, especially in a place like Swarthmore. Swarthmore is a small community, and if students start to put more effort into achievement in parts of their lives other than academics, it might just spread. If we start to value things not only because they look good on a résumé but because they help lead to more fulfilled lives then maybe swatties would be able to find more balance in their lives.
I want to believe that it is possible to have values that are different from the community in which I live. But in observing another culture I have seen how much easier it is to hold those values similar to those around you. I would love to move back to the U.S. and continue adopting some of the lagom values I have seen in Sweden, but I know that is not always going to be possible. It is hard to value personal well-being on a campus that is so focused on academic achievement or to value equality in a society that values personal wealth above all. I started to get frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to live my life according to Swedish lagom, but then I reminded myself that there is no one Swedish lagom. I didn’t have to live my life exactly like the perfect Swede I read about in a Vogue article. I had to take a step back and think about what balance would look like in my life and how I could achieve it. I could try to find a balance between things that make me comfortable and things that push me to my limits. I could focus on the little things that make me happy instead of the things society tells me I need to live a fulfilled life. Lagom is truly a personal concept and will not look the same for any one person, but everyone could benefit from taking a few minutes to think about what balance means to them.