Land of Lagom
If one spends time living in Sweden, they will soon begin to notice a certain energy of calmness, serenity or even complacency. They will try to explain it to their friends back home, but perhaps they can’t put the feeling into words. That’s because there is no English translation for lagom. As with most enigmatic words with enigmatic meanings, there is an ancient Viking legend detailing how the word lagom first entered the Swedish vocabulary.
Let’s journey back in time together to a moment between the years of 500 and 800 AD to, let’s say, the southern Swedish coast. A mist hangs in the air as twilight begins to eat away the last of the light. An encampment of Viking warriors sit around an inviting fire, weary from a long trip across the Baltic, ready for some mead and a hearty meal.
Ingvar asks Erik how much mead should be given to the team (lag). Erik tells Ingvar to pass the bowl around (om) so that everyone gets his fair share. Thus, a new word is coined that later becomes part of the Swedish national identity. Of course, there are more academic explanations of how the word came about, but let’s not get held up in its supposed origins.
In English, the word can have any number of close synonyms, such as “just right,” “moderation,” or “adequate.” It is the best choice of action between the two extremes on the table in any given situation. I like to think of the word as being Swedish for zen.
Lagom’s physical manifestation can be seen in many facets of everyday life. The interior design, the portions of the food, and the fashions and mannerisms of the people are just a few examples of this cultural phenomenon.
The most internationally recognizable example would definitely be IKEA. The company is famous for its functional, minimalist, and utilitarian designs, which are direct products of the lagom way of thinking.
One can tell when they’re in a Swede’s flat, not just because it’s furnished with IKEA, but because everything is arranged in a practical and rational manner. There is a lot of space, which is filled with natural light that is allowed in by the massive windows. It’s rare to see unnecessary junk lying around.
Of course, there are less visible representations of lagom. Swedes are known for being polite and avoiding unnecessary conflict. These attributes compliment their enjoyment of privacy and personal space, as well as their respect of others’.
I have yet to see anyone get overly pissed when a bus/train is late, if there is a large queue, or if food is taking too long to be prepared. Everyone accepts the things they cannot change with calmness, instead of boisterous complaining or yelling.
In both physical manifestation and mental practice, lagom is something we should consider while wandering, or just carrying on with our everyday lives. It reduces the clutter, opens wide spaces, and prevents headaches caused by unnecessary anger directed at the things we cannot change. Sounds good to me.
Lagom är bäst!