If there’s one thing that challenges our commitment to moderation, it’s the holiday season. Think about all that comes with it: the constant cocktail parties, which start 5 weeks before Christmas; the bottomless tins of sugary cookies; the frantic, sweaty gift shopping in cumbersome coats; the retail purchases because you need something festive, preferably with sequins, even if sequins isn’t your thing; the crowds; cheap chocolate Santas; candied pecans; eggnog that requires a ladle; and an unfathomable amount of candy canes. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a step back from it all? Not in a curmudgeonly way, but in a space-to-breathe way. Enter lagom—the Swedish philosophy that means “not too much, not too little, just right” which is just a cute way of saying “moderation.” Lagom is a lovely approach to life, as well as an integral part of the Scandinavian psyche—it celebrates simplicity and balance and eschews over-consumption and thoughtless living. With the holidays upon us, I reached out to Linnea Dunne, author of Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living for some insights on how to navigate this time of year (and beyond) with equanimity and joy. Here’s what she had to say.
I know the general meaning of of lagom is "not too little, not too much, just right." But can you give some examples of what this looks like in everyday life? This notion applies to so many things in Sweden, from obvious, material choices to more subtle ways of living. It could be as simple as researching what car you really need and getting that very car instead of splashing out on something cooler, or breaking habits of impulsive shopping in favor of investing in capsule wardrobe items you really love and need. But it’s also seen on a societal level, in how taxation works to look after everyone, and childcare is heavily subsidized to make sure that no child (or parent) is left behind. In organizations and offices, it typically means a reasonably non-hierarchical structure and a culture where discussion is encouraged and consensus celebrated. Once you start looking for lagom in Sweden, you’ll find it everywhere.
The idea of moderation isn't very sexy, but there's something so attractive about lagom. Why do you think that is?
Moderation perhaps isn’t very sexy at first glance, but I think for many of us, it is once you put it into practice. Most people are exhausted half the time and struggling to limit everything from consumption to working hours and social media use, despite the fact that we know that we’d feel better and be happier if we were just able to take a step back and rest a bit more, buy a little less and connect with each other properly. Lagom promotes that connection in many ways; it puts the spotlight on these habits we’ve created, which we engage in without reflection, despite the fact that they’re bad for everything from our mental health to the environment. Taking enough of a step back to become conscious of how we live and what we really need helps us to cut out the things we don’t, which makes space – physically and mentally and socially – for the good stuff. And that’s kind of sexy.
In the U.S., it’s easy to get caught up in the "never enough" culture, which is what makes lagom a truly refreshing philosophy. What's the easiest way for people to start incorporating it into their lives? That ‘step back’ is something I talk about a lot. It’s hard to begin before you get that perspective. I think breaking it down into sections and categories can help, and then it’s a case of being honest and asking questions. In your social life, what feeds and energizes you, and what’s draining and toxic, and why are you keeping up the latter? In your home, what makes cooking time-consuming and difficult, and what causes all the waste? What systems can you put in place to minimize the need for planning and help with ongoing decluttering? What’s stopping you from investing in quality clothes when, in reality, you’re spending the same amount of money on throw-away fashion; do you need to start micro saving, perhaps? Start small, and it’s likely that the sense of freedom you get when you get rid of the things you don’t need and start looking after those that you do will inspire you to go lagom in more aspects of your life.
It's the holiday season, so we're at the height of consumerism here in the U.S. Any words of advice on how to navigate this time of year in lagom-style? It’s funny how so many people seem to be sick and tired of the consumerism craze of Christmas, yet the figures keep going up. Talk about mindless spending and needing to take a step back! Navigating family traditions and different feelings and needs can be tricky, so needless to say you’ll need to keep in mind what’s important to those you’re spending the festive season with – but I genuinely believe that once you have that conversation, most people are more than up for a simplified Christmas. To save energy, why not make Christmas dinner a festive potluck party so that everyone helps out? If you’re swapping gifts, try lowering the max spend or agree only to buy second-hand, upcycled or experience gifts. Whatever aspect of the festive season triggers your anxiety – be it in a social or environmental way, or other – try to tackle that. I know I’m happiest when the decorations are up, there are a few nice things in the fridge, the kids have had a present they really wanted and I’m on the couch in lounge wear with my immediate family, watching Netflix and only ever leaving the house for a country walk. It doesn’t have to be so elaborate.
What are three ideas for lagom-inspired gifts? 1. Give an experience: do quality time at a spa with a close friend, pay for participation in a race for a keen runner or cyclist, or get tickets to a festival or concert. 2. Give of your time: offer your babysitting services to someone with young children or a promise of a regular back massage for your partner. 3. Get something you know that someone needs, but which you know they wouldn’t invest in for themselves. It could be anything from some physiotherapy sessions to a great laptop case or a solid raincoat. If you really know someone, you can buy new and really make it count.