The Swedish word that’s displacing hygge
Move over hygge, there’s a new Scandinavian lifestyle trend to embrace. a Swedish word is displacing hygge.
Popularised over the past few years, the Danish ethos of hygge denotes momentary bliss and cosiness, but at its core aims for contentment at specific moments. But the lifestyle industry has moved on, and the Swedish principle lagom (pronounced: laaaw-gum) – with its virtue of moderation and balance – has been crowned the next ‘it word’ by the likes of Vogue and ELLE.
It makes sense that lagom is resonating with people across the globe, says Niels Eék, co-founder and psychologist behind wellbeing app Remente. “At one end, we are excessive in our work habits, connectivity and indulgences. On the other hand, we are advised to limit ourselves by trying a new fad diet or a trendy detox,” he said.
“In a world of contrasts and contradictory advice, lagom hits the middle – allowing people to enjoy themselves, but stay healthy and content at the same time.”
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But while this new global focus on Swedish lifestyle is flattering for Swedes, lagom isn’t a concept that can be easily wrapped into a marketing strategy.
The first time I became fully aware of this ethos was when I moved to Sweden from the US more than seven years ago. My husband and I were invited to dinner at a friend’s home, which was sparsely decorated in neutral hues and light wood, with a throw rug here and there. Our host, Jörgen, was a professional violinist, and his other guests were accomplished musicians with various orchestras in Stockholm – a normal day for them could involve playing at the Nobel Prize ceremony.
Nevertheless, as if coordinating with Jörgen’s sparsely decorated apartment, the unspoken dress code seemed to be well-worn jeans, flowing tops for the ladies and more form-fitting shirts for the men. With shoes parked by the door, we were all sporting socks.
But beyond the laidback vibe, there was something else in the air. As accomplished as the group was, there was no gratuitous peppering of achievements or divulging of personal information. The guests all fluently spoke an average of three languages each, yet were quick to dismiss their prowess because they weren’t native speakers of some of those languages.
The conversation ebbed and flowed – from their latest performances to current projects and travels – yet seemed to be subconsciously moderated by everyone at the table so it wasn’t too much or too little in any way. Filled with long stretches of silence, it dipped into a mental space that seemed perfectly comfortable for them but kept me itching to fill the void with some noise – any noise.
That was when lagom began to reveal itself to me as ‘appropriate group conduct’ – even among friends and colleagues who had known each other for years.
Etymologically, the word ‘lagom’ is an Old Norse form of the word ‘law’, and it also means ‘team’ in Swedish. But culturally, the roots of lagom are tied back to communal times of the Vikings, when they gathered around the fire after a hard day’s work and passed around horns filled with mead, a honey-fermented beverage. Everyone was expected to sip just their fair share so others could have enough to drink as well. This ‘laget om’ (‘sitting around the team’) has been shortened to ‘lagom’ over centuries.
Often said to be untranslatable, lagom is usually described as the Goldilocks principle of ‘not too little, not too much, just right’, which implies everything in moderation. But the true reason it’s difficult to translate is because it mutates, changing meaning in different situations and within various contexts.
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. All these carry a connotation of ‘optimal’ decision-making.
Lagom in its most powerful form means that whatever contextual decision you make is the very best one for you or for the group you find yourself in.
For example, once while waiting at Stockholm Arlanda Airport for delayed luggage arriving from Lapland, my fellow passengers stood silently around the conveyor belt. Those travelling together shared a few words, but overall the air was devoid of conversation. In the US, I would have turned to my fellow passengers to banter loudly about the baggage delay. But here in Sweden, it seemed that stating the obvious through small talk was unnecessary.
The physical and mental space that the passengers were keeping was lagom at play – a way of reducing stress in an already stressful situation, and not inconveniencing each other through excessive gestures or talking too much.
Returning to the Goldilocks principle, we are steered towards the heroine’s own perfect portions: the right chair, the right bowl of porridge, the right bed. But we never really consider Papa Bear or Mama Bear’s own perfect portions. Because in Sweden, their chairs, bowls and beds are also ‘lagom’ – optimal for them.
My lagom state is not the same as your lagom state, but we enter joined spaces of recognition when we use the word because we can connect our individual ideals of what lagom means. For example, if I said the food was ‘lagom’ salted, in your mind, as the listener, you can envision the food perfectly salted to your own taste. My palate may prefer a saltier version than yours, but you fully understand the context.
Lagom wants to push us to a space of individual contentment while creating harmony within whatever groups or societies we find ourselves. In an ideal world, this would work perfectly. But it is human nature to feel envious – and this is why some Swedes process lagom with mixed feelings.
Since one person’s lagom isn’t exactly the same as another’s, a negative side of lagom can manifest within group settings. This side 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.
The term’s usage has even evolved because of this to also mean ‘uninspiring’ and ‘boring’. And so many Swedes want to disassociate themselves from the word. There’s even a hashtag #NoMoreLagom.
Nevertheless, instead of looking at lagom as just ‘moderation’, which carries with it more blasé connotations like middle-of-the-road, mediocre or austere, re-centring lagom back to its optimal core carries a more holistic view of the choices we make in our lives.
“Lagom teaches us how to avoid both excess and extreme limitation, allowing us to better understand what makes us happy and what works for our own, unique, mental wellbeing,” Eék said. “By adopting a lagom mindset, we teach ourselves to avoid extremes of mood or feeling.”
So, the next time you find yourself travelling around Sweden and are met with long stretches of silence and measured responses, chances are it has absolutely nothing to do with you and you’ve encountered lagom in action.