Hygge is so last year! Or at least it is if you believe the New York Times, which pronounced 2018 the time for two more Scandinavian imports, Norway’s lykke, basically a feeling of contentment, and Sweden’s giant of a phrase, lagom.
In these times, knowing when to stop is invaluable. It’s time to go lagom.
There’s a common myth about the etymology of the Swedish word “lagom.” According to legend, when the Vikings sat around the campfire, they passed the mead around and everyone could take only so much that there was enough to go around, with lag+om taken to mean “to go around the team.” (“Lag” is Swedish for “team”).
That story does sound too good to be true, and ironically, it is too much, because lagom can be taken to mean “not too much, but not too little, either.”
Originally, the word referred to the other “lag” in Swedish, meaning law, and the full word meant “according to the law.” It has since come to mean a condition when something is just right. It can be used with amounts of coffee or other beverages and food, but it can also be used with time – the kids can stay up “lagom late.” Other examples can include whether your outfit is right, how hard you should work, or even how to roast your meat, an example William Widgery Thomas used in his 1892 book Sweden and the Swedes.
Nobody has described Sweden and the Swedes better than Astrid Lindgren, the author who gave us Pippi Longstocking, Emil of Lönneberga, and the Brothers Lionheart, to name a few. One of her characters is Karlsson-on-the-Roof, a surprisingly vain Swede who describes himself as “handsome, clever and… moderately plump.” In Swedish, he calls himself lagom plump. Or, to put it another way, perfectly (if a little too generously) proportioned.
In another Lindgren book, The Six Bullerby Children, Lisa proclaims that, “When some people think you’re big and others that you’re small, maybe you’re just exactly lagom old.”
These days, while lagom is often said to mean “not too little, not too much,” it’s generally, almost without exception, used to mean “in moderation,” to put a stop to over-consumption, over-indulgence, basically over-anything. It’s rarely, if ever, used when there’s too little of something. When you hold a cup in your hand and a Swede pours you coffee, you probably wouldn’t say “lagom är bäst” to get more. However, if you only want a half a cup, you’d quite happily tell the other person that by saying that lagom is best.
It’s hard to see what lagom is until you reach the point where it seems to be almost too much. And that’s where you stop. Lagom is what we teach our kids and it’s what keeps a person from falling prey to the seven deadly sins.
Lust? Try lagom instead.
Greed? Lagom, lagom!
Sloth? Well, lagom.
Wrath? Even here: lagom.
Envy? I think you know the answer.
Pride? Be proud! Just, you know, lagom. Nobody likes boastful people.
Of course Swedes know that the idea of lagom exists elsewhere in the world. The French say that “L’excès en tout est un défaut” (Excess in everything is a fault), the Finns “Kohtuus kaikessa” (Moderation in everything), and the Norwegians even use the same word as their neighbors in Sweden. Many Eastern philosophies meanwhile are based on the pursuit of moderation, as is yoga, and yes, even the ancient Greeks knew of the idea. -Aristotle wrote that a moral life is “one of moderation in all things except virtue.”
Somehow, we all seem to agree, or know, that too much is just too much. It’s just that Swedes have the word that encapsulates it so well. And because words matter, it has come to mean so much more than just “the right amount.” Lagom is everywhere. It’s a philosophy, a set of rules, a state of mind and a way of life.
Now, there are two kinds of people in the world – maximizers and satisficers. Those who want to get what they love and those who love what they get. Maximizers never stop looking for the optimal solution to their problem, which often makes them question their choices, and can leave them unhappy. A Satisficer meanwhile doesn’t need an infinite number of choices and is happy if the choice they make is good enough.
That applies to Swedes too, but even Swedish maximizers probably would agree on the right amount of choices – because it’s lagom!
To be fair, many Swedes loathe the idea of lagom because they feel it just holds them back. Those people can also be called selfish. While lagom isn’t a finite measure of amounts, taste or beauty, it’s also not solely personal. Lagom is often relative within the group of people around you, which is why, while it is a myth, the team of Vikings passing around a helmet full of beer is a good way to think about lagom.
There are only so many cups of coffee in a thermos at a school bake sale. (Lagom also manifests itself in that very Swedish way of there always being a half a cup left in the thermos and a sliver of a cake left on the plate).
But mostly the Swedes who don’t like lagom dislike it because it is… how to put this… so very Swedish. It’s hard to be a prophet in one’s own land.
Until the New York Times makes lagom the next big thing.
Which is all very well – just not too big though.
Originally published in Scandinavian Traveler, March 2018