Lagom, and how my Homestay taught me the value of just enough

For Gabby (she/her), Colby College, her time in Stockholm came with cultural shifts and a new pace of life. In this blog, she reflects on how her understanding of the Swedish concept of lagom and how her Homestay hosts embodied the concept.

 “Lagom” is a Swedish word that carries deep cultural value, there are traces of its influences woven throughout Swedish life; and even a great number of books published that promise to explain it as the key to a perfect life. Despite its quite grand influence, it (somewhat ironically) translates vaguely to “just enough.” The term is also explained as “not too much, not too little”, “just the right amount,” or “the Goldilocks amount”.

When arriving in Sweden, this was a cultural difference that I noticed right away — it’s a way of life that obviously permeates, but in the subtlest of ways. While I found myself reflecting on what this term means throughout the semester, one instance stands out as being a particularly powerful illustration — a morning run with my host mom when we took a weekend trip to the mountains up north. 

It was a slow morning. We woke up just as the grey sky began to glow — an image I’ve grown accustomed to associating with, say, five in the morning. But, since we were so late in the year and so far north, it was, in fact, closer to 8:00 a.m. Waking up with the sunrise might’ve seemed daunting, but the crisp fall morning air was refreshing and the trees seemed to welcome you outside to join them.

We had arrived the night before, the cloudy sky preventing the stars from illuminating the scenery. Although I was hesitant to go for a run this morning, — the weather was a little bit on the chillier side of being “just the right” temperature to go for a run — I was excited to join my host mom on an adventure. We started the run by going up the hill a bit, getting the most challenging part done. The thrill of seeing the village down below from where we arrived was enough to push me to the top of the first hill, and the view from above was stunning, worth every step it took to get to the top.

This first part of the run did not perfectly follow the idea of lagom. If it were truly a lagom run, it’s possible we would not have taken the hilly route and instead might have gone for a flat path along a track. Yet, as my host mother has pointed out, it is difficult to do everything perfectly lagom. Because, without the peaks and lows of life, you won’t experience the wonders at the top. I ruminated on the idea I had imagined — lagom is used in parallel with the Goldilocks. Just the right amount, which I always equated with describing the perfect scenario. But that’s maybe not the case at all.

Once we took a moment to take in the view, letting the soft wind cool us down and catching our breath, we headed down toward the center of the town. Passing different highlights and taking a moment to learn about the different parts of the town. It was incredible to truly be in the moment and spend time with my host mom. We saw the river up close, nestled into the valley we had descended upon. We took a minute to enter the local church. And finally, got to see the different activities the town had sponsored and set up for the kids to play in during their fall break.

It was lagom how it all fit perfectly into a less than an hour run — so much seamlessly included. Here, I would describe the run length as lagom; we did not push ourselves to extend the run and get bread as my host mom often does. What we did was just enough. By this time, the sun had fully risen, and we now walked back up the hill home.

Throughout this seemingly simple morning, there is a throughline that ties lagom to another important aspect of Swedish life: sustainability. Starting with the idea of when taking a tour of the town, we went on a run instead of driving around — here, we saved energy while rejuvenating ourselves by taking the time to get outside and exercise. When my host mom normally runs to the bakery in the morning, this achieves the same goal. It creates a mentality where you can do two things at once, and by doing so, you improve the quality of life by doing just enough of both.

Compared to being in the U.S., in Sweden, there is a much greater focus on sustainability and taking care of the environment so that people can continue to enjoy being outside and nature’s beauty. Another way that I experience this daily is through forms of transport and the setup of cities and towns. The public transport system throughout Sweden is incredibly well-connected and spans across the country. I used this to get back home from my weekend in the mountains; simply taking an overnight train. In terms of the setup of towns, there was a movement in the ’60s and ’70s where the country believed that all people should be able to access what they needed, so towns were centralized — this limited traveling from place to place and the need to waste time and gas by driving everywhere. 

All of these simple yet intentional changes make the country more sustainable as a whole and allow the people to have not too little, not too much. The concept of connecting to nature in this way is very lagom, and I look forward to taking this idea back to the States. I am now going to be even more conscious about how I travel long distances, as well as how often I drive to get places where a nice walk or run could be a better replacement instead. I am so grateful for sharing this experience with my host mom and learning more about the concept of lagom and its importance. While no life can be completely lagom, I find myself incorporating the idea into my life — just enough.

Read more about embracing Swedish concepts:
>> How to Go Green in Stockholm
>> Scandinavian Concepts for Balanced Living

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