A New Scandinavian Buzzword Offers Advice for a Happier Life
Learn why “lagom” may just be this year’s big happiness trend.
Posted January 16, 2017
In their unending quest for happier and better lives, Americans have started looking to Scandinavia for advice. There are certainly worse ideas: Despite their cold climates and high cost of living, Scandinavian countries are consistently rated among the world’s happiest. And while we can’t expect to import sweeping policies like socialized medicine and subsidized college education to the United States, we can certainly consider some of their smaller strategies for living well.
Take hygge. This Danish concept of coziness, togetherness, and lack of anything unpleasant took firm hold in the U.S. this winter, inspiring us to light more candles, don more fuzzy socks, host more intimate dinner parties, and pay more attention to the layout of our living spaces.
Now another Scandinavian idea is working its way into our collective psyches: lagom. This commonly-used Swedish term roughly translates into “just enough.” It can be used to describe the appropriate number of meatballs to put on your plate (10 would not be lagom, but maybe three would be), or a good number of hours per day to work (eight hours might be lagom, but 10 is certainly not.)
Lagom suggests moderation and balance in all things, finding the sweet spot rather than clinging to the assumption that more is better. Lagom is part of a broader Swedish belief in equality and modesty, in which excess and showiness violate key cultural norms. A red sports car is not lagom; a floor-length, leopard faux fur coat isn’t, either. And this influence is broad and far-reaching: Aesthetic minimalism, a diet consisting of reasonable portions, mindful use of natural resources, and a healthy work-life balance can all be traced to the idea of lagom.
In the past year, lagom has popped up in unexpected places: It's a popular Twitter hashtag, the title of a British magazine celebrating work-life balance, and the name of an American skin-care line. Vogue magazine named 2017 “The Year of Lagom.” And Swedish furniture giant IKEA has capitalized on the trend with its Living Lagom project, which encourages sustainable living in the U.K., because using just the right amount of electricity is also linked to lagom.
But lagom goes far beyond fashion and aesthetics. In fact, it can teach us valuable lessons about how to live a happier life.
As some have convincingly argued, we’ve become a bit obsessed with our own happiness. The logic seems to be that if “pretty happy” is a desirable state of being, “really happy” must be even better, and “extremely happy” must be the best of all possible worlds. Not so, argue researchers who have found that the conscious, effortful, and unnatural pursuit of happiness is highly counterproductive. It turns out that people who are told about the many benefits of happiness actually experience less of it when something good happens to them. This is largely because they feel disappointed in their inability to cultivate (or force) the happiness they were seeking. And those who highly value happiness, agreeing with survey items such as, “Feeling happy is extremely important to me,” and “If I don’t feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me,” tend to be less happy, lonelier, and more likely to suffer from depression (Ford et al., 2012; Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011).
The happier you try to be, it seems, the less happy you often end up.
So what can lagom teach us about happiness? First, more happiness is not necessarily better (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011). In fact, extreme positive states like euphoria and exuberance might make it harder to feel empathy and detect subtle emotional cues in your environment. Think of excessive happiness as a broken thermostat. It’s also unsustainable and likely to lead to disappointment.
Second, pursuing a more lagom style of happiness is preferable in many ways. It’s a feeling of natural—not forced—contentment, balance, and sustainable positivity.
For a happier, more balanced life, start by asking yourself, “Is this lagom?” Ask it when you look inside your crowded closet, or as you consider your relationship with your work. Ask it when a massive portion of food is placed before you, or as you consider that second bowl of ice cream. Ask it about your life in general. Amid the more typical American life questions, like “Am I joyful?” and “Can I do better?” add in these much more reasonable questions: “Am I content?” “Is this good enough?”
If this questioning feels foreign, it's partly because it is. But after you play with the idea for a bit, you may be surprised at just how well a lagom mindset—one of "good enough"—fosters the sort of happiness that endures.
Ford, B. Q., Shallcross, A. J., Mauss, I. B., Floerke, V. A., & Gruber, J. (2014). Desperately seeking happiness: Valuing happiness is associated with symptoms and diagnosis of depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33, 890-905.
Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (3), 222-233.
Mauss, I . B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11, 807-815.