By Alan AtKisson
At the age of forty, I moved to Sweden, and learned Swedish. Like any wealthy country, Sweden is full of shopping malls and the advertisements that drive us to them. Although once feared by US leaders as a bastion of socialism (President Dwight Eisenhower once gave a speech on the topic), this Nordic country has always been a tiny capitalist powerhouse, from Alfred Nobel’s string of European dynamite and gunpowder factories in the 1800s, to today’s global brands like IKEA or H&M. A visiting colleague from Tunisia, who had spent time in both the US and Sweden, reflected to me that Swedes seemed to him even more obsessed with shopping than Americans – which was saying quite a lot.
But despite the usual consumerist excesses that one can find here (mostly in the major cities), Sweden also has something that many other countries do not have: the concept of lagom.
The word lagom – which has no direct equivalent in English – appears often in Swedish conversation. For many people here, it captures something essential about Swedish culture as well. Lagom has to do with quantity, with the “how muchness” of something. Lagom is neither too much nor too little; but neither is it just “enough.” (There is a different word for that.)
Lagom means “exactly the right amount.” It can be applied to anything: stuff, people, the size of a room, the food on your plate, even the atmosphere at a party. If it were a place, it would lie somewhere north of sufficiency, but south of excess. It is hard to say exactly how much it is, but you know it when you experience it. When something is “just right,” it is lagom.
I first encountered lagom when I first visited my wife, who is Swedish, in her apartment outside of Stockholm. The Swedish style of simple-but-comfortable home furnishings has always appealed to me. But I was amazed to learn that she owned only two towels. (Actually, it turned out that she owned three, but the third she used only for travel. Swedes tend to bring their own towels.) Coming from America, where most people have an entire closet devoted to a mountain of towels, the concept of owning just two towels was mind-boggling. How did she do it?
“When the bathroom towels are dirty, I wash them. When they wear out, I buy two more — and very good ones, so they last a long time.”
“Why do I need more than two?” she said. “That’s lagom.“
The word lagom is pronounced, like so much of Swedish, melodically. The “la” is a falling tone. The “gom” (rhymes with “home” in American English) is a shorter syllable that starts right back up at the same tone where the “la” started. Swedish is something like Chinese; if you don’t sing the word right, you probably won’t be understood.
Understanding lagom will help you understand why Scandinavian design tends to look minimalist. Materials should not be wasted. Function precedes form. Nothing is gained by excess; and very likely, something important is lost.
The general belief about the origins of lagom dates back to the Viking era. When a bowl of beer was passed around the circle, it was expected that everyone would drink exactly the right amount for them, and leave exactly the right amount for everyone else as well. Lagom is two words together, lag (team) and om (around). Embedded in the concept is a sense of togetherness, or “social solidarity.” Indeed, social solidarity is another concept that is far more prevalent in Swedish life; a commitment to the well-being of others, and not just oneself, is at the core of both the culture, and the political system. One of the harshest critiques I have heard uttered against a person, for example, is that she or he is not sufficiently solidarisk – an adjective for which I can find no equivalent in English either.
In contrast, when it comes to thinking about responses to overconsumption and consumerism, we English-speakers are stuck with an inadequate vocabulary. “Enough” sounds to most of our ears as though it had the word “barely” just in front of it. For some reason, “enough” never sounds like…enough. Other words used commonly in talking about the issues of overconsumption do not fare much better. “Balance” sounds difficult; one eventually loses it. “Sufficiency” carries the whiff of technical economic jargon, and has even more of that “barely” feeling in it. Even “simplicity,” despite its ups and downs in marketing and magazine circles, tends to appeal largely to folks with either a strong sense of moral commitment, or a serious case of overwhelm.
The world needs better concepts for thinking about how much, in terms of stuff and consumption, is the right amount – and the Swedes have given us a word for it. The concept of lagom can be applied to everything from cake to carbon dioxide emissions. What is lagom for chocolate cake? For me, it’s usually a bit more than “enough.” But what’s lagom for CO2? Only as much as the ecological systems of the Earth can reabsorb, and no more. Lagom allows for more than enough – but it still sets limits.
In looking around the world and talking to people about lagom, I have so far found only one other culture that has an equivalent: Japan. There is a phrase in Japanese that means “I have just what I need.” In fact, I am told that there is more than just a phrase for this idea: there is even a god. Apparently, in Japan, one can leave offerings at the temple of the god of having exactly what you need.
What if our economic aspirations were organized not around the concept of “growth,” but around the concept of having exactly what you need – lagom? Not that all of Sweden is organized that way; although my wife is hardly an extremist, she is a more enthusiastic lagom-ist than many of her fellow Swedes. There are plenty of cases of modern-day “Affluenza” here, including a creeping incursion by SUVs on the roads. And Sweden does have a history of occasionally taking a bit more than it needs. (Imagine the Vikings taking only lagom when they plundered!)
So I have begun an attempt both to export this word, and to celebrate it here at home in Sweden, where it can sometimes also be used ironically: it’s a terrible thing, for example, to call your boyfriend lagom. Some people here complain about living in the “land of lagom,” of “middle milk” that has just 2% fat; they long for a bit more excess. As the Buddhists remind us, everything should be taken in moderation, including moderation.
Lagom may be tricky for English-speakers to pronounce. But it has an attractive quality that “enough,” “sufficient,” and even “simple” often lack. Most people in the world do not want enough. They want more. They certainly want more than the bare minimum, and research suggests they want more than those around them. This desire for more seems to be deeply wired in the human organism. We developed over millennia in hostile environments, both natural and social. To have more than we need has always been our first defense against the vagaries of an uncertain future. Hoarding is the first act of those who believe themselves to be in the path of a storm (or a marauding army of plundering Vikings, for that matter).
So while there will always be those of us who love the idea of “enough-ness” and “voluntary simplicity,” it seems likely that such concepts may never quite be…well…enough to transform the masses of humanity. Nor are they likely to transform the marauding army of global corporations vying to fill our houses with stuff, in a kind of reverse-Viking-plunder operation.
But it does seem possible to promote a sensible Swedish sense of lagom worldwide – and to find other good words for it – because it speaks more to what people actually want. Let’s admit that it is very nice to have good shoes. No one can be faulted for wanting them. But does a person really need fifteen pairs? No. But is one pair enough? Perhaps not. Lagom acknowledges that people have varying needs and desires at different times. They want nice things, and comfort, and security. They want more than the bare minimum, and they might even need it. If their desire for more than enough is accepted, even supported, perhaps they would be more willing to consider how much is too much.
Clearly, in those parts of the world obsessed with acquisition (including Sweden), and curiously unconcerned about the disappearance of polar ice and polar bears, we are far beyond the limits of lagom. Once, I took my wife to visit a “Sam’s Club” in the US. As most people reading this will know, these are huge retail warehouse stores full of consumer goods, on sale cheap. The buildings are large enough to house a submarine assembly plant. You can buy everything from taco shells to trampolines to model wooden boats, by the crate. The shopping carts are as big as a small car (no, you can’t buy cars, not yet). Walking around the aisles of one of these stores has always brought forth several radically different feelings in me: raw consumer lust, great moral outrage, and aching environmental angst.
But my wife’s response, when she first encountered one of these places, was more practical. “I suppose people can save quite a lot of money here,” she noted. “And it’s better to buy some things in larger quantities.” (Not towels.) “But perhaps it’s just very tempting to take too much in such a place.”
Nobody really needs too much, and in fact, most people don’t really want it. But nobody wants too little. Perhaps our vision for a sustainable world should include not just enough for all, but lagom for all, with fewer temptations to take too much.
And while I could write a lot more about this proposed new addition to the world’s vocabulary, perhaps this essay, too, is now lagom.
An earlier version of this essay, entitled “The Right Amount,” was originally published in The Simple Living Newsletter (Jan 2001) and several other publications, including the Center for a New American Dream. It has been updated and adapted for the author’s recent book “Because We Believe in the Future: Collected Essays on Sustainability, 1989-2009,” published by ISIS Academy Press in 2012.
Strategic consultant, social entrepreneur, multi-skilled communicator, with over twenty years of international experience in sustainability leadership and professional development, Alan AtKisson is most well known as an inspiring keynote speaker, and as the author of the widely read books Believing Cassandra and The Sustainability Transformation. He has a passion for accelerating change toward sustainability, and he has worked with sustainability initiatives in over forty countries. Alan works on complex strategic and technical issues in sustainability, with global companies and institutions. But he also believes in using every skill one can bring to the table, and in his case, that includes music and songwriting. Whenever possible (and appropriate), he brings music and creativity into the heart of the work, “because music is a way of supporting both the intellectual and the emotional sides of our generation’s greatest challenge: tackling an array of complex global problems and creating a sustainable future.” Follow him at www.alanatkisson.com.
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