The 8 Best Lessons I Learned Living the Lagom Life

I have a thing for extremes. One day I’m up, the next day I’m down. I go all in, or I don’t go at all. A year or two ago, I Kondo’ed my belongings—an incredibly stressful venture I don’t recommend—and tried to be a minimalist. Then I decided to dive into hygge and invested in an abundance of candles and fairy lights and a cashmere sweatsuit). I’m not even going to tell you how many crystals I own.

I’m basically willing to try anything in the name of living a happier, healthier life, which is why, after doing some superficial research, I was drawn to the Swedish concept of lagom. The Swedish population is consistently ranked among the happiest on the globe, and I wanted in on their secrets. Lo and behold, a life of lagom basically represents the opposite of mine. The term loosely translates to “not too little, and not too much, but just right,” according to Niki Brantmark, the author of Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living a Happy, Balanced Life. Backstory goes that the word “lagom” comes from the Viking term laget om, which means “around the team” and comes from the custom of passing a horn of mead around and ensuring there was just enough for everyone to get a sip. As a 2017 Guardian article puts it, “It’s about not doing what is unnecessary or superfluous, focusing on what is absolutely essential, knowing when to stop.”

Not too little. Not too much. Knowing when to stop. These are not phrases that typify my existence. This was going to be a challenge.

I read up on all things lagom to find out if I could use it to become more balanced. The thoughtful, careful approach to both work and life means less frivolity, more authenticity, and most importantly, happiness that isn’t related to the amount of money in my bank account. As Linea Dunne writes in her book Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living, “a lagom amount of money is enough; beyond that, our happiness levels depend on other factors.”

So, I dedicated myself to the lagom life for a full 30 days, no excuses. I challenged myself to adhere to guidelines that were hard for me, but also gave myself a pass to skip the things that didn’t feel right. (I mean, how lagom is that, am I right? No, seriously, am I right??) Here are some of the things I found made me the happiest—and you can try to apply to your own life if you feel like they could work for you, too.

1. Keep your house clean and uncluttered.

While I’d like to be neat all the time, the nature of my job—specifically, the high volume of beauty, skin-care, and fitness products I test within my home “office,” a corner in my one bedroom—makes me have so much stuff, all the time. So even with my best efforts to stay neat, I often find that there’s a bit of a mess more often than not. But one of the keys to a lagom home is minimalism.

In her book, Brantmark offers five signs that you need to declutter your home, including reasons such as, “You have an entire cupboard or room for items you never use” or “It takes you more than five minutes to find something you’re looking for.” Check, check. Translation: It was clear I needed to do some serious excavation. Unlike the Marie Kondo method, which is a total home/life makeover project if done to the letter, proponents of lagom suggest taking things slowly, like tackling just one cupboard at a time.

This seemed like a great idea because it I didn’t have to take on my entire apartment, which would normally leave me overwhelmed and quick to give up. The lagom way has left my home far neater and more organized than I would have imagined. Particularly, I’ve been fond of the five-minute rule, and find myself cleaning out areas where I often misplace things. I’ve also created little homes for everything important, whether it be a cradle for my cell phone or a tray for my wallet. (I now have both.)

2. Make coffee breaks real breaks.

The Swedish are known for their coffee breaks, a social ritual known as fika, which translates to “taking a break for coffee and enjoying a small treat,’” says Brantmark. “But it also means so much more than that. It’s a moment to relax and catch up with others away from the stresses and strains of everyday life.” Similarly, Dunne writes that “fika can be a way to pause, relax and connect—with yourself, your loved ones, colleagues or a book.”

While I’m excellent at drinking coffee, I literally could not be worse at taking breaks in the middle of the day. I blame this on working from home as a writer and my laser-like focus. Even if I did tear myself from my computer screen, it’s not like I have colleagues or friends in nearby offices to take a break with.

Yet Brantmark is quick to point out that the beauty of fika is in its simplicity. “The beauty of fika is how uncomplicated it is. You can do it literally anywhere—at your kitchen table, at a local cafe, on the beach, or even on the side of the road. And you can do it almost anytime…all you need is a cup of coffee—or another hot drink—and a small treat of some kind,” she says. “The key is to stop whatever you’re doing and take some time out to enjoy the simple, good things in life.”

For me, fika breaks have turned into twice-daily walks around my neighborhood, settling on one of the six coffee shops within walking distance, and treating myself to some kind of beverage and, if I’m really feeling feisty, a snack. The combination of giving my brain some downtime and that bit of aerobic exercise is just what I need. I’m less frantic about my email as a result, too; not checking it as much hasn’t affected my work.

3. Working longer doesn’t equal working harder.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as of 2017, the average Swede works 1,609 hours per year, compared with an average of 1,759 hours across the rest of the world. And yet Sweden ranks sixth in the global competitiveness index. Americans work an average of 1,780 hours per year—hovering above the global average— and rank second overall when it comes to competition, though I’m not sure those four extra spots are really worth the climb.

Could coffee breaks be partly to credit here? Maybe. Dunne pointed me to the 52:17 rule, which comes from a study done by a job-search site that 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. Fueled by fika, I tried to swap in a work-then-take-a-break-then-work routine for my usual work-for-hours-on-end-until-you-break way of doing things, and though I can’t say I adhered to the 52:17 rule exactly, what I found was that by giving myself the OK to take breaks, I got far more done overall than if I’d locked myself up and expected myself to write for about six hours on end.

And honestly, that was a diversion from how I usually act. I used to say no to every work event during office hours or after in an attempt to bust out more content. But because I followed the 52:17 rule—loosely speaking—I found that I was able to attend events, make those good contacts and connections while also getting my work done in the same total amount of time.

4. Respect the life-giving powers of leftovers.

Living lagom is all about not being wasteful with all things, food included. Specifically, lagom adherents never let good leftovers go to waste. As someone who prefers eating her Chinese takeout cold the next day, this is a mindset I can get behind. And as Dunne writes, the popular Swedish dish known as pyittipanna (which translates to “small pieces in a pan”) was traditionally devised from a hodgepodge of leftovers.

So I figured, why not give it a go with the contents of my own fridge, incorporating this waste-not-want-not cooking ethos by eating a little bit of whatever I had left over in the fridge for breakfast and LOVING IT. My breakfasts, which previously consisted of heaps of coffee and a “sopper” slice of toast (soppers are my family’s affectionate name for slices of toast to sop up the morning’s carafe of coffee), became much more diverse, and it was a nourishing and dare I say inspiring way to kick off the day—especially with a fried egg on top, which Dunne cites as a true Swedish touch, along with beetroot, the latter of which I politely pass on.

5. Friday nights are best spent in sweats on the couch.

Through reading, I learned about the lagom practice of fredagsmys, or the honoring of downtime with loved ones: “It’s an evening dedicated to spending time together and unwinding as a family after a long week–you just need to find a show everyone can enjoy,” Dunne writes.

Likewise, Brantmark’s suggestions for successful Cozy Fridays include: Set aside your phones and clear your calendar for the evening; plan a simple, popular meal that all the family loves, such as pizza or tacos; select an activity you can all do together, like playing a board game or watching a film; and bring out snacks, such as popcorns and crisps, to share. Dunne suggests using plenty of candles, especially tealights, for an ambient vibe, while also cozying up in your favorite loungewear.

I already knew I’d ace sitting in front of the TV come Friday night in sweatpants, but I wasn’t sure if I could muster up the strength to cook the whole pick-and-mix taco buffet that Dunne suggests as a traditional Swedish option.

Aside from the face my husband shot at me at the thought of DIY tacos (he was not interested), I was honestly too tired to start cooking on a Friday. No matter how semi-homemade. I used my desire to partake in all things lagom to rationalize ordering McDonald’s for dinner.

6. A basic black wardrobe makes life better.

Two words: capsule wardrobe, a term that refers to a minimalist, highly practical closet featuring a limited amount of beloved, highly versatile garments that can be styled together in multiple ways. 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, says Brantmark. “It’s also more economical, and those who try it say it makes them feel happier.”

Swedish fashion is often gender- and color-neutral, “but dressing lagom is just as much about making it easy for yourself and feeling comfortable as it is about fitting in in the most sophisticated of ways,” says Dunne. Think loose shapes, a color scheme in mostly black with the odd, attention-grabbing print or statement scarf, some big jewellery, and comfortable, walking-friendly shoes.

Thankfully, I have a similar all-black style ethos (although I’ve gotten pretty wild recently and tried to fold in some more greys, beiges and whites, too). The idea of creating a mix-and-match capsule seemed daunting but feasible if I really was thoughtful about it. Huh, so it’s that balance, mindfulness thing again.

Brantmark suggested an exercise of taking everything from your closet out, removing five hangers, and then hanging your favorites up, with the goal being you’ll discard five items upon completion.

And I have to say, that worked. I thought I’d just edited the contents of my closet recently, but turns out I had at least five pieces to toss—I had no problem bidding adieu to a cap-sleeved blouse I hadn’t worn in two years, a black dress that’s about three sizes too large these days, and a few other I-forgot-these-existed-but-I-definitely-don’t-need-them pieces I had no problem parting with.
However, Dunne warns of passing on too much too quickly. “You might rediscover an old skirt and discover it now works perfectly,” she writes. So while I wanted to toss the old black Maje dress that’s a bit too loose these days, it’s such a beautifully tailored sheath that I know I’ll want (and fit into) it again eventually. This would be a no-no under Kondo rules, but lagom let me have this one.

7. The topknot makes styling hair a non-issue (or less of one).

Dunne says that many who live the lagom life choose a hairstyle that’s quick, easy, and versatile—not unlike the whole capsule wardrobe thing. She writes that many finish their looks with a high topknot, dubbed “the Lykke Li bun” a few years ago after the Swedish singer who popularized it. I’ve been rocking the high bun since my high school days (and its height was known to be directly proportional to my stress level while I was on staff at a few magazines), but I never thought of it as a look.

But because I’ve given up on blow drying after like over a decade of heat styling hell with my hair, the topknot is now my go-to look. And my GOD has it made my life easier. I’m talking like, hours of my life back. My hair is also way healthier thanks to the lack of styling products, tools, and toiling.

Here are my beauty editor tips on how to achieve the perfect messy top knot: Ensure your hair isn’t newly washed (it’s far trickier to achieve this style with silky smooth hair). Scrape your hair together and pull it straight up over your head. Twist it downwards towards the crown, stopping an inch above your head. Wrap the hair around itself to form a loose bun. Use as many hair ties and/or bobby pins as you need for a secure hold. Get extra and tease out a few strands to give it that “I’ve worn this bun all day and night” look.

8. If there’s one gift I got from living that lagom life, it was a sense of calm.

And let me be clear: I’m not exactly known for my placid attitude nor everyday dealings in life, in fact, I often get anxious just trying to not be anxious. (This, of course, I’m working on with my therapist.)

But until Tara and I clear things up, living lagom taught me that life doesn’t need to be so damn complicated; that I can say “stop” when I’ve done enough or taken on enough work without sloppily accepting every assignment and sending back half-assed copy. Because I should get to relax and enjoy life’s pleasures—living lagom is about enjoying everything in moderation; a more healthy, balanced way of thinking. Personally, I found that that experimenting with lagom and making subtle changes to your routine will not only bring a sense of equilibrium to your life; it will also bring you a greater feeling of calm and contentment.