Sunday 18 February 2018

How Lagom is your life ?


Picture: Ikea
Picture: Ikea

Linnea Dunne

Hygge has had its heyday and now lagom is the lifestyle buzzword on everyone's lips. Our reporter explores the Swedish concept of having just enough - but not too much - and wonders if this is too tall an order for the Irish and our love of extremes…

I always felt out of place at Irish weddings. Don't get me wrong - I do enjoy a big love fest. It's just that to me, as a Swede, the all-in glam with high heels and fake tans can seem a tad excessive. The fancy version of me turns up and - surrounded by people fit to star as extras in a Hollywood blockbuster - feels dull, almost as if I were trying to ruin the big day.

It is true that my Swedish teenage friends would likely confirm that I was never one to splash out on party wear, but there is more to my not fitting in at Irish weddings than that. I was born and raised in a culture steeped in 'lagom', the untranslatable Swedish concept dubbed as the Nordic lifestyle trend to covet in 2017, replacing last year's equally untranslatable Danish 'hygge'.

Hygge, as you may well have come to know, is all about being in the moment, relaxing, and spending quality time with loved ones. As the trend was picked up across the Western world last year, it was quickly commodified and turned into a marketing craze of comfy socks and mood-enhancing cushions and throws, yet the essence of it was easy to get behind: cut yourself some slack, cosy up and chill. Light a few candles, if you're that way inclined.

Lagom, if you ask me, will require more of a hard sell. It means 'not too little, not too much - but just enough' and has its origins in an old Viking phrase: laget om, or 'around the team', for when a mug of mead was being passed around and there was just enough for everyone to get a sip.

With a strong welfare state and a tendency to top global equality indexes, Sweden has made this idea of balance and fairness synonymous with the country's very existence, but the word lagom is used to describe everything from the temperature of scones to the level of difficulty of an exam.

Was it busy in work today? Lagom. Is this dress a bit much? No, it's lagom. Sometimes the word is used to express that something is adequate or sufficient, but often times it is more than that: it suggests that a balancing act has reached perfection - and that goes for more than just the material world.

"Other than being Scandinavian and having roots in societies that try to ensure that its people don't overdo things, hygge and lagom have very little to do with each other," says Danish expat Brontë Aurell, author of ScandiKitchen: The Essence of Hygge. She is married to a Swede and owns and runs the café Scandinavian Kitchen in central London, so she knows a thing or two about how Nordic trends travel.

"Hygge is about being present and having a nice time with people you love. It's a feeling, not a social code. Lagom is a set of social rules that are engrained into Swedish culture. It is not having two buns with your coffee break. Lagom is buying a Volvo, not a Porsche; it's about fitting into the middle of everything - and not going outside those social lines."

I left Sweden aged 19 after graduating from secondary school, hoping to boost my worldliness, improve my English and simply have some fun before returning to go to university. Unsurprisingly, that's what Swedes do: take enough time out to ensure that they don't grow ethnocentric and prejudiced, yet not so much that they forget about the benefits of a country renowned for its completely free third-level education and generous parental leave packages. It's very lagom altogether.

I never made it back. Trust me, I tried, but I had fallen in love with Ireland, grown addicted to the way I felt about myself here. When I met up with fellow Swedish expat friends over pints for nights out that were all but lagom, we shared a sense of freedom and entrusted in each other a secret fondness of the Irish it'll-be-grand attitude.

A decade on, with half-Swedish, half-Irish kids about to start school, we've come to realise that we were running away from the narrowly defined norms of a life of lagom. That's the flipside of this covetable coin: aiming for 'just enough' is one thing, but perfection can be extremely suffocating.

So how could my adopted culture of extravagant weddings adapt to this attitude of perfect moderation? And why should it even try, if all it will end up with is a more balanced diet topped up with a constant sense of being judged?

Aisling Curtin, psychologist and member of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) Communications Subgroup, is convinced that a lagom approach to life is exactly what the Irish need. "We're huge fans of excesses. Just think back to excessive December and dry January, where the Irish over-consume alcohol, stodgy foods and expensive gifts, whether they can afford to or not, only to vow in January to detoxify their bodies of the same," she says.

Psychologically, Curtin explains, we are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety when we strive to feel certain wanted feelings, such as calmness or happiness, while trying to repress unwanted emotions like sadness and shame. "A middle-path approach where people are willing to feel both the wanted and unwanted emotions is most certainly preferable in terms of long-term sustainable mental health and wellbeing," she says, adding that the same goes for self-esteem. "Many Irish people grew up in a self-deprecating environment with very limited praise and struggle with low self-esteem as a result.

"But contrary to what some believe, promoting high self-esteem is not the solution - that just tends to lead to increased prejudice and narcissism. We should invest our time and energy into the middle path of self-acceptance instead."

It seems the Irish could benefit a lot from adopting a lagom mindset, in terms of both inner peace and open-mindedness beyond a personal level. But not everyone agrees that lagom ticks the tolerance box. Writing in The Guardian about his adopted country's "suffocating doctrine of Lutheran self-denial", Malmö-based Richard Orange begged fellow Britons not to romanticise the lagom culture. "You might as well celebrate middle-of-the-road, low expectations, conforming to the norm," he wrote.

He has a point: conformity is key. Take the window thermometer everyone checks first thing in the morning to pick the appropriate outfit - because you couldn't be seen wearing just a wool coat when the temperatures drop below freezing or, worse, on the first day of spring when the denim jacket is due out along with a sophisticated, light scarf. And don't for a second think about sending your child to crèche without the compulsory thermals and overalls in winter, or the Swedes will pity you. Enter a bunch of Swedish tourists in Dublin's coffee shops confusedly trying to decipher the Irish dress sense: "There's someone wearing a big winter coat and sandals?" It won't be grand - not in their lagom minds.

But Orange severely underestimates Swedes with his notion of low expectations. Has he never been to a Swedish birthday picnic?

While the distaste for extravagance and flashiness he describes - which goes hand in hand with the Law of Jante, a set of ideals proclaiming that you should never think of yourself as better than anybody else, something that's contributed to Sweden's consensus obsession and flat company structures - this is where the ambitious people shine. From home-brewed beers and meat marinated to perfection to vegan ice-cream and homemade sourdough bread, expectations can be sky high when Swedes play potluck and no one will leave disappointed.

See, lagom is not about a lack of effort. It's about putting the time into reasoning with your colleagues, not in order to win, but to reach consensus and guarantee the very best outcome. It's about Christmas decorations that create the visual equivalence of choral music, while sneering at American over-the-top kitsch. It's about having the right to stay at home - pay intact - to mind a sick child, and never abusing that right.

Jonas Gardell, the Swedish novelist and comedian whose 1996 stage show gave Sweden the nickname 'Mellanmjölkens Land', most closely translated as 'the country of semi-skimmed milk', wrote during his early career about the struggles of being a flamboyant gay man in a country that cherishes moderation and balance. But when I interviewed him last year, he told me that the concept of lagom should be marketed as Sweden's greatest strength.

"You give and you take: that's what should be the great Swedish export to the world," he said. "A lot fits within the parameters for lagom. I'm quite an oddball, and even I fit in. But the benefit of Mellanmjölk is that we don't have to kill each other - we accept compromise."

Maybe Gardell was right. "Just five minutes a day," says Aisling Curtin - that's just enough of a commitment for Irish people to effect real change towards a happier, more compassionate Ireland.

With a lagom approach to lagom, it's at least worth a go. There's nothing saying you can't go to a wedding the odd time and turn it up to 11, so busy giving it socks that you wouldn't even notice if there was a dull Swede in a corner feeling self-conscious.

And anyway, it'll be grand. If all else fails and you need some TLC, there's always good old hygge.

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