Have you ever wondered why Scandinavian countries continue to show up at the top of all surveys and research done on happiness? Especially when you consider that for much of their winters they have very little sunlight and temperatures are freezing. Still, over and over those countries demonstrate that the people who live there rate highly in what most researchers call “subjective wellbeing.” So even though that environment is near the bottom of my personal list of where to live, and I doubt the people there walk around with giddy smiles on their faces, they clearly have something precious and desirable. Is it possible that what makes living there so unparalleled is something called “lagom?” And could it be that lagom is just the Swedish word for the practice of rightsizing?
Last week I came across the word lagom in one of the Facebook Groups I follow. A short article explained that lagom likely originated from the time of the Vikings. It is said that when the Vikings traveled around the region doing their marauding thing they lived very communally. In other words, they shared equally in all they had. For example, at mealtimes, they would pass around the communal bowl of food and drink with each person taking only what they needed—and leaving the rest for others. The word lagom loosely translates to a sense of fairness or moderation, “just right, not too much, not too little,” or “just enough.”
That philosophy of moderation, sharing and fairness lies deep in the Scandinavian culture and permeates every aspect of its residents’ lives. While globalization is gradually eroding some of the philosophy in younger generations, it is still alive and well and continues to guide the politics and other social systems of those countries. As proof that such a guiding philosophy has merit and value, the Annual World Happiness Report continues to put those countries at the top of the list.
But what about rightsizing? When I began examining the values of lagom I could clearly make the connection between it and my definition of rightsizing. With that in mind I came up with ten ways that the two concepts are similar.
- Knowing enough is enough. Rightsizing tells me that there is an amount or set-point where my needs are met and I am content and happy with just enough. Sure it might be tempting to get more—more money, more possessions, do more things—but rightsizing, like lagom, reminds me that reaching for and getting more doesn’t usually make me (or anyone else) happier.
- Good work/life balance. Rightsizing continually suggests that having a good life overall should never be sacrificed by working at jobs you dislike or for hours that are impossibly difficult. For example, the Swedes typically take over a month off every year to vacation. And according to Statistica.com the average Swedes works 29.2 hours per week while the average U.S. Citizen works 44 hours per week in any given year. Balancing your work with your personal life is rightsized.
- Sustainability and taking care of the planet. Rightsizing implies that we are responsible for taking care of those things that take care of us—like our planet. Living sustainably means we do our best to recycle, reuse and maintain our environments so that they last and thrive. Sweden is considered one of the most sustainable and “green” countries in the world with very low emissions, energy efficiency and high renewables. By caring for their environment, it stays healthy and rewards its residents.
- Punctuality, consideration and respect for others. The people in Scandinavian countries trust their leaders and tend to have respect and consideration for each other. While that kind of trust doesn’t seem to come automatically to other countries, the idea of respect, consideration and care for others is a deeply rightsized perspective. Doing to others as we want done to ourselves is living in a rightsized way.
- Doing things just right—not necessarily perfect. From what I read the Swedes don’t strive to be perfect. Instead they seek the right balance in what they create, do and strive to become. Meanwhile in many other Western countries, the drive to be perfect, to be the “best,” and “out-do” others is pervasive and often leads to never feeling good enough.
- No need to stand out or have a BIG lifestyle. According to what I read, most people in Scandinavian countries have little need to stand out or be seen as special. In fact, they avoid any display of ostentatious behavior (big houses, big cars, big???). By the same token, when a person lives a rightsized life there is little need to compare or compete with others.
- Equality and division of labor. One thing that appears to work very well in Sweden is the expectation that everyone does their fair share—both in the culture and at home. Both men and women devote equal amounts of time to childcare, cooking, cleaning and all details of the household. Like rightsizing, this equal division of labor balances the needs of every family in an equitable way that uniquely fits each family.
- Taking a “fika” break as needed. One thing I loved learning about was the idea of regular breaks taken each and every day in Sweden. A common practice is that you work a few hours in the morning…take a 20-minute break away from your desk or work area…and take a fika. A fika means taking a break with coffee, pastries and relaxing with friends. Then you repeat the practice in the afternoon—again away from your work area. In fact, Swedes would never have lunch at their desk! How rightsized is that?
- Walking in nature and getting fresh air. While not a particular rightsized habit, this practice in Sweden points to their need to enjoy nature and spend time outside. Called friluftsliv, this expression literally translates to “open-air living” and points out how important the practice is for mental, psychological and spiritual good health. Certainly in the 21st Century this activity should be included in any sort of rightsized life.
- Living frugally and financially sustainable. One practice that keeps the Danish people living a happy life is avoiding unsustainable debt. They seldom buy more than they need or can afford. With a belief that anything more than enough is wasteful, they eliminate the stress that can come with trying to compete or compare with what other people have. Such a balanced approach to finances is very rightsized.
I realize I have a tendency to see most things as rightsized. But when I learned about lagom and the meaning behind it, I could easily see why it could lead to creating both a happy life for individuals as well as for an entire country. If a country emphasizes such practices as a way of life, the push to be more, spend more, possess more and so on would disappear—and instead we could concentrate on creating a more balanced and happy life for ourselves and others.
I now have a better idea of why Scandinavian countries rank higher in terms of happiness than other countries around the world—even with long dark winters and very cold temps! With the attitude of lagom woven deeply into the culture, they automatically rightsize their lives. Perhaps it would be SMART for us to strive to the same in our own.
Announcing! Want to learn more about Rightsizing? I am happy to let you know that there is now an audio version of Rightsizing–the SMART Living 365 Guide to Reinventing Retirement available on both Amazon and Audible. To access the audio book or to listen to a sample (yes I am the narrator) click here!
They also have a word for winter time and turning inward with self, family and being contented. It is Hygge and I love it. I would never trade my cold weather country and for me it’s because of this internal contentness that occurs then. I was thrilled when I found out it had a word! I also like your cross referenced word. It makes sense to me in both contexts as that’s how we try to live our life.
Although, like you, I can’t see myself ever moving to a colder country, we can still embrace a life that serves us better and makes us happier. I’m so happy that I am no longer attempting to balance work and home because in this country, often the expectation is that work wins. Wouldn’t it be nice if globalization meant that we would embrace more traits of the Scandinavian countries than they take on ours.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hey Janis! So true…I would love to think that we could take the best of any other country and blend it into our own as well. While I do appreciate the freedoms that we have in the U.S., I think most of us would agree that sometimes those freedoms don’t consider other people outside our immediate circles (or the world at large). Plus, while I do my best to avoid telling others how to rightsize their lives (I tend to think it is very individual) I do believe that it helps those of us on that path to hear the message over and over so we know we are not alone in some of our choices. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. ~Kathy
I love the idea of lagom! Just right, not too much, not too little, just enough. I think Western civilizations would do well to adopt that culture and belief system rather than always having to “keep up with the Joneses” or outdo everyone. That type of philosophy is exhausting and there’s no way you can win. And definitely not happiness. There’s a saying I always found funny but very true “money doesn’t buy happiness but you can rent some real good times with it”. 🙂
The Scandinavian countries have always been leaders when it comes to work/life balance. I remember working for a Dutch company and the warehouse (in Italy) was shut down one a year for three weeks in August for everyone to take holidays. So, if you needed anything you better get it well in advance!
And they are very honest in my dealings which I love. There are no games and you don’t have to try and figure out what the meaning is. It is what they say it is. To me, that is also rightsizing or lagom. You’re “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
Thank you so much for sharing this concept and comparing to your rightsizing. Yes, I believe you are correct. They are very similar and seem to point to the same philosophy about life, living and sustainability. Thanks, Kathy, and have a great weekend!!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Debbie! Glad that I’m not the only one who sees it similar to rightsizing! And while I’m sure, like I said to Nancy, that their country has its concerns and issues, the idea of lagom seems to offer a good way to live. And I can’t help but believe the more of us who point that out as a good thing, the easier it is to live the concept and not get caught up in the consumer culture that you mention. If all your friends and acquaintances are doing one thing, and you are doing your best to live a different way, it can be difficult. So nice to know I have rightsizing friends around me. May you too be having a very lagom weekend! ~Kathy
Nancy Coiner says
My husband went to Finland as an exchange student in high school, and he loves it there (his Finnish family is fabulous). At least until recently, everything you said has held true (no extremes of wealth and poverty, people live in smaller spaces, education and other public goods are cheap, etc.), Plus, he says, there’s an emphasis on endurance and personal responsibility — so if you say you’re NOT happy, you’ve kind of admitted you’re at fault!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Nancy! Thanks for offering a personal look at how lagom shows up in people’s lives in Scandinavia. It is really such a different attitude that our culture usually pushes for so it might seem a bit strange (unless you are a rightsizing fan of course.) I am sure that they have their issues like we do–one seems to be that it asks people to just go along with what is expected rather than to “do your own thing.” I’m all for individuality–but do think that it needs to be balanced with a perspective that also consider the whole. I guess it is a fine line, right? Didn’t read much on the endurance and personal responsibility but can see where that could be pushed into making it a personals “fault” if they don’t achieve. All things to consider when doing our best to design a balanced and happy life, huh? Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy
This “Scandinavian way of life” is very similar to Dutch culture. There was an article in Maclean’s magazine (Canadian news journal…kinda like Time) a few years ago that proclaimed Dutch women as being the happiest…because most of them worked only part-time outside the house, so they were able to better balance their work and home life responsibilities. Dutch living spaces are necessarily small too, and the emphasis is on achieving “gezelligheid” in life, not possessions. This term is very similar to the trendy “hygge”…It’s hard to translate but when something is “gezellig”, there is a feeling of warmth, coziness and enjoyment of life, with friends and family. Great post!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Deb! It is a wonderful approach to life isn’t it? But I wrote a post about hygge a couple of years ago and from what I could tell that is more about creating an “atmosphere” that is cozy and welcoming–not necessarily an entire approach to life and other people like lagom. As you said, that ability to freely balance their work and home (and other things like education, childcare, health insurance) helps to create a culture where the emphasis is on contentment not on competition. I think it is good for us (especially us in the U.S.) to be reminded that there is so much more to life than having money and buying more and bigger stuff. Glad you liked the post and thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy