What “lagom” Really Means

In Sweden it is a commonly understood and often discussed topic that the citizens are striving to achieve a state of “lagom.” Lagom can be defined as normal or in moderate balance, but it also has an undertone of “not too much or too little” as well as “just right” or “just enough,” meaning one is standardized to the central norms of a society. Swedes are very proud of this term that has become so fundamentally integrated into the Swedish culture and cannot easily be translated. All example translations have either a positive or negative undertone, while lagom has none. It is a completely neutral word, which connotation is decided by the user. Lagom is neither being excessive nor sparse but looking/feeling/being at the perfect equilibrium right in between.

In one word, lagom describes the essential and elementary basis of the Swedish national psyche, which is one of consensus and equality. It is still widely considered ideal to be modest and avoid extremes. The concept of lagom is similar to that of the Middle Path in Eastern philosophy, and Aristotle’s “golden mean” of moderation in Western philosophy. Swedes generally consider their lagom ideology as a good thing, although sometimes the saying ‘lagom och svensk’ (lagom and Swedish) implies drab, colorless and perhaps boring; while ‘lagom är bäst’ (lagom is best) means moderation, balance and the wisdom of defining the best possible course of action between two extremes.

The value of “just enough” can be compared to the idiom “less is more”, or contrasted to the value of “more is better.” It is viewed favorably as a sustainable alternative to the hoarding and the extremes of consumerism. When traveling around Sweden, you see fewer mansions or extreme properties than you would do in other first world countries, because the prioritization of having the biggest and the best is not valued in the same way. The idea of lagom has becomes integrated to Swedish diplomacy and the acceptable, politically correct way of responding to situations or dealing with subjects one is not completely agreeing upon.. A favorite Swedish word which expresses diplomacy is “nja” (ja and nej all at once) – which means yes and no at the same time (or rather yes-but-no-but-yes-but-no).

Lagom has worked well for Sweden in many ways and has allowed a balancing of society and a minimization of class difference because of high income tax and good social benefits correlated to the standard of life. This way of living is the essence of everyday Swedish life and one of the reasons behind the internationally recognized Swedish phenomenon known as “the Swedish model”. Foreign countries are often envious of Sweden because it seems that they have it made with regards to the stabilization and symmetry of citizens among classes. This is closely related to another Swedish expression for social success – “välfärden”.
Välfärden translates as social welfare but the meaning to people living in Sweden is that Swedes should living lagom-ly according to the social welfare state that allows for basic needs (such as education and health care) to be taken care of so that one can strive for higher achievement. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs a person will never be able to achieve self-actualization (the highest and least often achieved stage of the pyramid according to Maslow) which means a realization of one’s own full potential, without satisfying all needs below it first. Swede’s are given a chance, and a foot up, to come closer to the top since governmental balance helps take care of basic psychological and safety needs, letting the individual focus on other priorities bringing them closer to the pinnacle.

A Swedish television poll in 2008 revealed that 76% of Swedish people considered lagom as positive; and 24% negative.


You might also like: