Moderation is a core principle of Swedish culture. Alice Signell questions whether even this can be pushed to excess.
The Nordic Model. The Scandinavian Lifestyle. The obsession with Northern European countries as prototypes of political and societal utopias. By now, you’re probably all sick of how-to guides on hygge, tired of the spotless perfection of Scandinavian showroom furniture, minimalist fashion, and idealised models of government and welfare states.The concept most recently appropriated by lifestyle connoisseurs is, however, quite interesting: the untranslatable Swedish word for balance and moderation, or rather, not too much yet not too little – just enough. The best translation might even be lukewarm, but not only for temperature.The word, and concept, is lagom, and it is often discussed as defining the Swedish psyche.
Used both as an adjective and adverb, lagom is neither positive nor negative, and initially seems completely harmless or perhaps even inspiring; for what better way to achieve happiness, minimise stress, and feel at peace than taking a step back and not overdoing everything? Although I frequently use it in Swedish, and feel that other languages and cultures are missing out, the consequences of the ‘lagom mentality’ in Sweden raises questions about how much lagom is just enough, and how much is too much.
Would you like more cake? No, I shouldn’t eat any more than this – this is lagom. Should we go to all three parties this weekend or only two? We shouldn’t overdo it, two is lagom. As a general guide, lagom teaches you to avoid both deficiency and excess. Although you might prefer more, being satisfied with and even striving for something less than perfect is the general idea. Lagom guides you to balance work and friends, encourages you to try your best, but never to push the boundaries. This is reflected in Scandinavian minimalist fashion, along with the perception of moderation and humility as key to being a good citizen. I often struggle finding an adequate translation of lagom in English, as no synonym for balance or moderation captures the neutral connotations of the original Swedish word, which defines something that is just right, without being inherently positive. In Swedish, the word lagom is nothing special or significant; it is just a very common term used by all ages in daily conversation.
There are numerous articles and books describing how lagom can change your life for the better and improve your mental health. Without completely rejecting the concept, because I do quite frankly love it, I believe that lagom is the cause or explanation for some of the many flaws and issues of Swedish society. I was raised in South East Asia by Swedish parents and spent every summer in Stockholm, before eventually moving there at the age of 14. Therefore, I feel justified in comparing cultures so far as identifying what is Swedish and what is not typically Swedish in terms of cultural norms and social behaviour. From personal experience, I believe the main issue with lagom is how it manifests itself in the Swedish psyche. In a society where the goal is to strive for ‘good enough’, passion, ambition, and drive are often mistaken for trying to prove yourself as superior to everyone else.
Although balancing your workload, listening to your body, and pacing yourself to avoid overexertion are essential for mental and physical health, being determined and working towards reaching one’s goals should not be condemned. Being privileged enough to grow up attending international schools abroad, I was educated in a very competitive environment, where success was praised and hard work encouraged. Excelling in a subject meant being offered additional, more challenging work in order to progress further. I therefore felt extremely out of place when I started a new school in Sweden and mentioned to my maths teacher that I had already covered the topics she was teaching – she politely asked me to wait until my peers had caught up to my level instead of giving me extra work. In my previous schools, I had been known as “hardworking” and “studious”. In Sweden, I was labelled “overambitious”.
Many argue against overly strict and disciplinary models of primary and secondary education, but the lagom mentality has pushed the Swedish education system in the polar opposite direction. Missed your essay deadline? Don’t worry, hand it in when you can. Still haven’t handed it in? That’s ok, your grade will be based on the work that you did do. Obviously, there are a range of factors that have resulted in the decline of the Swedish education system in world rankings. However, this mentality of a more casual approach to studies and a fear of overworking students is a very visible culprit.
It is interesting to note that similar comments were made about my extracurricular interests. Being dedicated to the performing arts, I spent hours rehearsing and training for shows or sharpening my skills.This was something I chose to do that both made me happy and helped me combat the stress of my academic and social life. Although they recognised the importance of having a hobby, friends and extended family encouraged me to take a break, step down, relax, and quite frankly stop trying so hard. “Maybe tone it down a little, you wouldn’t want to exhaust yourself” was advice I was given weekly.
Having said that, lagom is not the only culprit for this societal resistance towards individual triumph and high-achievement. Jantelagen, meaning ‘The Law of Jante’, is a code of social behaviour considered a defining aspect of Scandinavian society, and is closely linked to the idea of lagom. First coined by satirical author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, Jantelagen describes the culture of not striving for, nor taking pride in, any form of individual progress or success. Whereas lagom is usually only considered a word describing a form of balance (which I have interpreted as a core source of a certain mentality), Jantelagen specifically defines the Scandinavian view on the individual in relation to their peers. In some ways, this part of Scandinavian culture is quite inspiring: celebrities and politicians roam the streets of cities mainly undisturbed, as exaggerated recognition for success would be rejected. However, it does also discourage praise as a form of support and encouragement for further prosperity, which can be especially disheartening or unhelpful if a person has faced obstacles along the road to achieving their goals.
Returning to the concept of lagom, why is it that a country with such an underlying fear of overworking suffers from an increasing percentage of the employed population on sick leave for work-induced exhaustion? With no background in psychology to validate or justify diagnosing a whole nation, my hypothesis is that Swedish people do not learn how to deal with stress. Society shields its citizens from stress by demonising it as something to run away from and avoid at all costs. It is not strange, therefore, that when people launch themselves into a profession working with international markets, they are unable to handle the fast-paced, far-from-lagom way of doing things. Furthermore, hard work and exertion leading to accomplishment is faced with minimal support in the form of commendation. With restricted reward for efforts made, morale can quickly fade.
Lagom also prevents radical decisions being made, leading to indecisiveness and an extreme fear of risk taking. As I write this, Sweden has been without a government since the election day on 9th September 2018. The parties are anxious about upsetting anyone, with a concern that coalitions of any unconventional or unpredictable sort might portray a party as ‘too left’ or ‘too right’, as ‘too this’ or ‘too that’. But being without a defined government for months, with no signs of progress in decision-making, only leads the people of Sweden to distrust their state, causing a decreased sense of security and stability.
There is a lot we can take from the Swedes in regards to balance. In fact, I believe many societies could, and should, introduce Swedish models of work and life balance, the structure of parental leave (16 months, with 90 days reserved for each parent to balance out gender inequalities), the way indulgence is opposed for the sake of equal distribution, and happiness of others, to name a few. The key is to not exaggerate the use of this balance – to avoid incorporating it into all aspects of life, and to abstain from rejecting other people who choose to do things differently. Lagom should never be used as a free ticket out of difficult situations – it requires a sense of responsibility. Ironically, therefore, the key to lagom is lagom. As a true Swede, I conclude with the most Swedish thing I could say: have a lagom amount of lagom in your life, and you will be happier.
This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.