Stockholm, Sweden—“Eat until you feel full,” said the charming host of a trendy Stockholm restaurant, showing us their breakfast buffet.
My husband laughed, “In the U.S., we say ‘All you can eat’, and so we eat until we can’t eat anymore, like it’s a challenge that we’re trying to meet!”
Later that day, he laughed again at the sign in the Nordic Museum cafe: “Take as many napkins as you need,” and dutifully took only one.
This was my husband’s first time in Sweden and he was just getting familiar with the Swedish concept of lagom (pronounced law-gum). Proclaimed the new it-word by Vogue and BBC in recent years*, lagom has been used by Swedes for several hundred years. The original meaning ‘according to the law’ has with years transformed into “suitable, optimal, just the right amount, neither too much nor too little.”
Lagom permeates Swedish society, even when it is not explicitly used, as my examples above show. It is a true expression of the national Swedish character that dislikes waste, excess and showing off.
Lagom is easy to apply in other cultures, especially to things that are measurable and quantifiable, such as food, clothes, or the clutter in our homes. With lagom in mind, it is much easier to cook just the right amount of food for Thanksgiving and make everyone happy and full, without having to throw any food away. Or to buy the right amount of Christmas presents, skipping remorse about overspending a week later.
The best part of lagom is that it is individually tailored. What my neighbor views as the right amount of clothes in a wardrobe may be different from what makes me comfortable. The important thing is that it feels just right for my lifestyle. And so lagom takes away the anxiety of going fully minimalist, or meeting someone else’s expectations. It actually encourages me to think what would be optimal for my personal taste.
We certainly don’t need everything to be lagom: we appreciate extravagant dresses, larger-than-life characters and provocative art. But in our daily lives, many of us can benefit from a bit more balance, harmony and sustainable choices.
Lagom reminds us to work the right amount of hours, so that we have time for ourselves, family, and friends; to buy as much as we’re going to use; be mindful when eating; decorate homes with “less is more” in mind; and be sustainable in our use of water and energy. And perfectionists out there may remember that “just good enough” is what’s needed for most projects.
With its promise of the golden middle between polar opposites, lagom can even be applied to politics where everybody seems so extreme these days. Can we have a lagom educated, experienced and ethical political candidate, please?
*If you doubt it, check out at least nine books on Lagom on Amazon.