Growing up in Sweden, I never saw ‘lagom’ as a concept as such or a lifestyle. It’s a word we learn reasonably early on to be fairly typical of Sweden, but it’s not seen in Sweden as something to strive for. It was when interviewing the brilliant writer and playwright Jonas Gardell that I first started thinking about lagom differently, as he said something about it being Sweden’s greatest export (and this was before it was exported as a lifestyle concept, so maybe he was ahead of his time!). Then the Danish concept of ‘hygge’ became huge, and eventually I saw the word ‘lagom’ dubbed as the next trend, and the rest is history.
I was an editor of a magazine promoting brand Scandinavia at the time, and I’ve written a fair bit about cultural identity and place, so getting to delve into the origin and meaning of this oh-so Swedish notion was a real treat. It took me back to my childhood, through my school years and the experience of growing up to be a Swedish feminist, and onto my reality of being a Swedish emigrant, with all that that entails. I realised that lagom, while occasionally getting a bad rap back home, is central to so much of the success of brand Sweden, if we should talk about nations as brands.
Literally speaking, lagom means ‘not too little, not too much but just enough’, but there’s more to it than that. It’s about putting the time and effort into finding what works and what’s right, but not going over the top for the sake of showing off or winning arguments. It’s about buying one beautiful, functional thing rather than 20 average things you don’t really need; it’s about caring just as much about being dressed for the weather as you care about how you look, about spending on quality architecture for the sake of sustainability rather than winning awards. It’s at the heart of the social welfare state and the significant Social Democrat legacy; it’s central to the generous parental leave policies and state subsidised childcare, and it’s there at the core of a green, sustainable lifestyle and society. I grew to like a lot of what it represents, more than I perhaps thought I would – and so, it appears, did the rest of the world!