London can often seem like a city that’s out of balance with itself. Sky-high property prices get you small, one bed flats. Opportunities are rife, but work-life balance is skewed. Londoners can be innovative and creative, yet wasteful. So, how should those living in the capital seek to find better balance with themselves and the world around them?
In her book, Live Lagom. Balanced Living, The Swedish Way, Anna Brones, the daughter of a Swedish expat, offers that “applying a sense of lagom to our everyday lives – be it in what we eat, what we wear, how we live, how we work- might just be the trick for embracing a more balanced, sustainable lifestyle…” Like the now-popular Danish concept of hygge, Swedish lagom is intangible and difficult to define. Though, unlike hygge which encompasses moments, lagom is a way of living. It describes an approach to life that focuses on just the right amount of everything and anything. Roots of the term are said to trace back to the Viking era. After a long day, the Vikings passed around horns of mead and each person was expected to take just a moderate sip, while leaving enough for the rest of the group.
Brones summarises lagom as “not too much, not too little… just something in the middle, the moderate choice between two extremes.” But a perhaps more useful definition for non-Swedes comes from Lola Akinmade Åkerström, a Nigerian-born, US-educated travel writer and photographer, who is now an expat in Sweden. In her BBC article ‘The Swedish word that’s displacing hygge’, she explains that the reason why lagom is difficult to translate is because its meaning changes in different situations. She mentions, “It could mean ‘appropriate’ in social settings, ‘moderation’ in food, ‘less is more’ in interior decor, ‘mindfulness’ in wellbeing, ‘sustainability’ in lifestyle choices and ‘logic’ in business dealings.” Explained in this way, lagom is easier to grasp.
So, should Londoners learn to embrace lagom? Is it the cheat code we’ve been unknowingly searching for to escape the rat race? Or, is it a romanticised trend?
Sustainability in the City
Material written about lagom, including Brones’ book, explains how lagom touches upon every area of our lives; from work to home and how we interact with the environment. For everyone’s favourite Swedish brand, IKEA, sustainability is at the heart of what they consider lagom. They believe that lagom is “what living a rewarding but responsible life is all about: not denying yourself or sacrificing what you love, while not taking from the planet more than you need.” Ikea’s Live Lagom project encourages people to make small changes to their lifestyles to show how living sustainably can be affordable and achievable.
With the lowest average household recycling rates of any region in the UK, it’s probably true that many in London could make some small swaps to improve eco-friendliness. It could even be as simple as investing in a reusable plastic mug for your morning coffee, saying no to plastic straws and bags, or buying veg that is packaging free. In this sense, lagom is not ground-breaking, we know we should be better to the planet, yet it reminds us that small actions go a long way when everyone is invested in the same common goal of looking after the natural world.
Live Lagom and Prosper?
The strong sense of moderation in Sweden and other Nordic countries extends to work, too. While Londoners cram an extra day into the working week, wracking up 8.2 hours of overtime on average each week, Swedes tend to stick to their formal hours. In fact, according to Eurostat, the working week in the UK is the longest in Europe at an average of 42.3 hours. Sweden’s working week is 39.9 hours, on average.
We live in a screen-dominated culture that glorifies busy and leads us to believe that to be successful, we must be working long hours and sacrificing our sleep and social life. While long days can be unavoidable at times, what would happen if Londoners applied some lagom-style principles to their work-life balance? According to Brones, this means changing our attitude to work. She writes, “We have a tendency to approach life-work balance by starting with the question ‘How can I work less?’ What if we instead asked ourselves ‘How can I work better?'” She advises us to work smarter with better planning and prioritising as “quality work doesn’t necessarily mean working more hours, just as working fewer hours doesn’t always mean producing work of a lesser quality.”
Fika, another untranslatable word which broadly means ‘coffee break’, also plays a role in making the Swedes efficient at work. It means making time to slow down and switch off from your work stress for a short period. While perhaps easier said than done, it’s often quoted as key for the productivity of the Swedes.
And finally, allowing ourselves to digital detox and unplug from our modern ‘always-on’ work and screen culture helps us to recharge and re-find our creativity and motivation. Arguably, this is also pretty important for doing well at work and having those eureka moments.
Everything in Moderation
While finding balance with work and caring for the environment are undeniably positive consequences of embracing lagom principles, there is a side to the concept that doesn’t mesh well with London’s personality. As highlighted above, lagom promotes moderation and this encompasses everything in life, not just how we recycle or how long we spend at work. Yet, when delving deeper, critics of lagom highlight that this can promote moderation in personality, too. Being ambitious can be seen as showing off, whereas in London, entrepreneurialism, innovation and going the extra mile are seen as things to be celebrated.
In his Guardian article, writer Richard Orange, claims that after spending some time living in Sweden, he noticed that not all Swedes are pro lagom. Which, he mentions, differs to the Danes, who are all “fanatical” about hygge. He offers that during the past 20 years, Swedes are removing themselves from the “self-restraint” associated with lagom. And finally, he begs us not to adopt lagom as a lifestyle trend in the same way that hygge was commercialised.
Lagom and London
Where does this leave us in London? Many articles around lagom focus on the pros or cons of one aspect of the concept. Yet, to truly adopt lagom and find the Swedish formula for happiness, must we adopt all aspects, the good and the bad?
At this point, it’s useful to return to Akinmade Åkerström’s writing on lagom. She explains that lagom means making the optimal decision for the situation and group of people that you are with. The group is considered important as, in reality, a ‘lagom’ quantity of something will be considered different to different people. This could, of course, create conflict. According to Akinmade Åkerström, lagom “insists that people conform to ensure harmony and not bring their individual levels of lagom into the group because it can cause jealousy and breed resentment.” And ultimately, in an interview with The Local, Akinmade Åkerström highlights that “what makes it very Swedish (or Nordic) is just how often lagom pulls us from individual focus to group focus.”
Her argument to those that criticise lagom of being uninspiringly moderate, is that “re-centring lagom back to its optimal core carries a more holistic view of the choices we make in our lives.” In other words, to live lagom is to be encouraged to consider all the decisions we make in life collectively and find our own levels of contentment across the board, instead of in just one area of our lives. And this is arguably an approach to life worth trying.