6 Ways to Practice Lagom, the Swedish Secret to a Balanced, Happy Life
Over a decade ago, Niki Brantmark was invited to spend her summer vacation with a friend on Sweden's West Coast. "It was the perfect setting for the beginnings of a love affair—not only with my Swedish husband but also with the Swedish way of life," she writes in her new book Lagom ($14, amazon.com). Pronounced LAH-gum, the term translates to "not too little, not too much" or "just right"—and in Sweden it represents the art of living a balanced, slower, fuss-free life. "Swedish people take their time. They stop, they look, they listen and they wait. The beauty of slowing down, I've learned, is that it helps you be more in the moment and enjoy the simple pleasures in life," Brantmark writes. "And there's something very relaxing and satisfying about it, too." Below are six tips from her book, to help you add more lagom to your everyday life.
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1. Adopt the morgondopp
Blessed with 11,500km (over 7,000 miles) of coastline and around 100,000 lakes, it’s little wonder the Swedes love to bathe. But one type of alfresco bathing stands out: the morgondopp, or morning dip. Most commonly enjoyed between May and September (although some hardy types go year-round), the morgondopp is usually enjoyed first thing in the morning before coffee. The bather dons a dressing gown and wanders down to the local bathing deck.
The length of time you stay in the water depends on the temperature, which I’ve noticed is something of a national obsession. Bathing piers wouldn’t be complete without a small thermometer bobbing on the end of a string. Some people decide their bathing ‘season’ around these numbers. For example, my parents-in-law, Inger and Bo, begin their season when the mercury rises above 10°C (50°F)! ‘As soon as I hit the water, I feel completely awake and ready for the day ahead,’ enthuses Inger. ‘It’s just you and the great expanse of water.
It’s an incredibly humbling experience and so relaxing to feel the warm sun and cool breeze on your body afterwards.’
Nowhere near any sea, river, stream or lake? Try ending your daily shower with a cold-water blast. It may not be as mindful or empowering as a saltwater swim, but you’ll still get many of the physiological benefits and will almost certainly wake up with a jolt!
2. Dare to go alone
My Swedish friend Yvonne recounted how she’d once gone on a solitary five-day hike across a nature reserve. Although she confessed that it’s incredible just how many noises there are in the woods at night, the only time she was uncomfortable was when a party set up camp next to her and played the guitar until the small hours. Above all else, she enthused about how liberating and empowering the experience was.
To be honest with you, I can’t quite see myself camping alone in the woods at night, but it does inspire me to head out for a few hours to feel the power of being alone in nature, and I hope it does the same for you. It’s in these solitary moments that you appreciate the rustle of the leaves in the wind, the sound of the breaking waves or the distant melody of a lark.
The unbroken spell of nature allows you to slow down, switch off and be alone with your thoughts—something of a rarity in the noisy world we live in today.
3. Create a capsule wardrobe
Loosely speaking, the Swedish wardrobe could be likened to a capsule wardrobe—a minimalist, highly practical closet created by clearing out unwanted or unused clothes and replacing them with a limited number of loved, highly versatile garments, which can ultimately be worn together.
Because a capsule wardrobe makes it easy to pick an outfit, you take the stress out of getting dressed and spend less time and energy on shopping and laundry. It’s also more economical, and those who try it say it makes them feel happier.
4. Take breaks
The Swedish fika paus is a break with a coffee and maybe a little treat. It could be an informal catch-up with a colleague prompted by a simple, ‘Shall we have a coffee at 10? I’d really like to hear about your holiday/weekend/nightmare neighbor.’ Or it could be a more formal team fika, scheduled in the calendar months before. Formal or informal, it’s about taking time to switch off for a few minutes and giving yourself a breather.
Speaking as someone who took some time to get used to this idea, you may feel a twinge of guilt at the self-indulgence. But actually, putting your feet up once in a while makes total personal and business sense.
A study by Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business found that people who took morning breaks at work reported feeling more energized, more able to concentrate and more motivated, and were less likely to report symptoms like headaches and lower back pain. Interestingly, though, these positive effects fell the more time that elapsed between each break. In other words, taking short, regular breaks is key!
To get into the habit, try the 52–17-minute rule: A recent study found that the most productive people work for 52 minutes and then take a 17-minute break. Of course, not all jobs allow for this, but it’s worth thinking about the frequency—and keeping it in mind!
Note to introverts: If the thought of making small talk can sometimes feel exhausting, there’s nothing wrong with sloping off and indulging in some much-needed time alone—whether it’s taking a walk around the block, quietly sipping a coffee or doing whatever you need to do to feel rested. I learned this from the global HR director at my former company here in Sweden. He announced that, as an introvert, this was exactly how he was planning to spend his break, and that we should follow suit if desired. Music to every introvert’s ears!
5. Learn the art of listening
Converse with a Swede and you’ll notice that they very rarely interrupt or talk over anyone else. Voices are kept to even tones (unless there’s schnapps involved), and pauses in conversation are completely acceptable. To Brits, this can feel excruciatingly awkward. Culturally, we’re so concerned about a gap in the conversation that we constantly overlap before people have completed their sentence. Swedes feel slightly awkward in these silent moments, too, but rather than desperately fill the gap with a hurried slew of off-the-cuff words, they’ll make sounds, like a sharp intake of breath or even a sing-song sound like a two-toned ‘hmmm’. This gives them time to reflect on something meaningful that they can contribute.
This type of discourse doesn’t work so well at a cocktail party where small talk abounds, but it will add more meaning to a full conversation. And like all things lagom, it’s a fairer, more equal conversation where everyone gets a chance to say something, rather than just the loudest person in the room.
The next time you’re in a social situation or enjoying a break at work, I challenge you to give it a go. Slow down the discourse. Really listen to others and reflect on what they have to say. Once someone’s finished speaking, take time to reflect (if needed) before giving a meaningful response. Once you get into the slower rhythm, you’ll find it’s so much more relaxing to speak without fear of interruption. And you might just learn some new, fascinating things about the person you’re speaking to!
6. Perform random acts of kindness
As with all things lagom, spreading a little happiness doesn’t need to involve grand gestures. Sometimes the most ordinary acts add the most meaning and inspire the greatest smiles of all.
When my second daughter was born, a Swedish friend turned up at the door with a family meal and insisted she wasn’t staying, so as not to disturb. Another particularly busy friend of mine dropped in to make me a cup of tea when I injured my leg—every day of the week! These simple, thoughtful acts lifted my spirits on the hardest of days.
I’m sure you’re already a very caring person, but sometimes a gentle reminder to be aware of others doesn’t go amiss. And often catching people off-guard with an unexpected act of kindness can be the most touching gesture of all.
Here are a few simple ideas:
1. Leave a kind note in a library book for the next reader.
2. Decide to give out ten heartfelt compliments in a day.
3. Write a thank-you note to the public services, like the police, firemen or nurses.
4. Write a handwritten letter to a friend or relative you haven’t been in touch with for years.
5. Carry a spare umbrella and hand it over to a friend when it rains.
Excerpted from Lagom by Niki Brantmark. Published October 3 by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.