On the Swedish balance of ‘lagom’, and how I learnt to practice with what I preach.
It’s coming up to a year since I bought a house. At the time of writing my first book – Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living – we were viewing and bidding on a number of different houses in north Dublin, some old and some new, some small and some more spacious, before finally signing on and moving into our current home, probably best described as small but perfectly formed. Towards the very end of our search, we had gone sale agreed on two very different houses: one huge, super-modern new-build in the outer suburbs, and one old, small former council house in an urban neighbourhood within walking distance to the city centre. I always thought of it then as choosing between house and location, between a fabulous home in an area we didn’t really want to be in, and a tight squeeze in need of refurbishment in a buzzing area with a stunning old park and great schools. It’s only really since moving into the latter that I’ve realised that the former wasn’t necessarily a better house – because the one we chose in the end is just enough.
‘Lagom’ is a Swedish word that means ‘not too little, not too much but just enough’, or ‘just perfect’. It is often used to describe the perfection of a balancing act, like the right-temperature water in a bath or the right amount of milk in your coffee, but in many ways, it also perfectly encapsulates an attitude that has shaped Swedish culture and society: a place of equality, consensus and environmental consciousness, where parents are incentivised to share parental leave equally and potluck picnics are a perfectly acceptable form of birthday party. When I wrote my book about lagom, it became clear to me just how badly the western world is missing this kind of balancing awareness – and then, consciously or not, I went and bought the definition of a lagom house.
It is hardly news to anyone that we as a society often confuse bigger for better, that we have a tendency to consume ourselves blind and buy three for the price of two even if we only really need one, just because we think that more is more. And it is hardly controversial to say that this is slightly sick. Yet we seem unable to break the cycle and stop this excessive hyperbole addiction – and soon, it won’t just be our mental and physical health that suffers, but we will run out of natural resources too. From 24/7 notifications to a complete inability to leave work at work, the flexibility we thought would make our lives easier has if anything only restricted our freedom, and countless people want out.
Since moving into our lagom house, we have given away bags of toys, sold perfectly functional furniture and learnt to think twice before spending more money on more material things. We have stripped and restored 100-year-old wooden floorboards and are looking to replace the flimsy old PVC door with one more reminiscent of the 1920s original. We have kept beautiful String shelves and a Lamino armchair – beautiful Scandinavian quality furniture passed down to us and shipped over from Sweden – and kept the rest minimal: white, white, light grey and wood. It’s happened once or twice that I’ve thought about that spacious, stunning creative studio we would have had if we’d bought the big, suburban house instead, but other than that, I haven’t looked back once. Why heat and clean and maintain more square metres if you don’t really need them? It’s not very lagom, that’s for sure.
I wrote in my book that a shift in mindset from a knee-jerk consumerist, hierarchical more-is-more approach to a more considered, local, minimalist attitude can make us both more present and more contented, all while helping to be mindful of the limited resources we have on this planet – be it by slowing down with Swedish ‘fika’ or learning to make the most of old attic finds. I had no idea then how right I was.