I am intrigued by the concept of minimalism. The idea of letting go of the unnecessary in exchange for enhanced freedom is a tempting idea.
But I’ve always felt a little intimidated by what I perceive to be the ‘extremism’ of minimalism. Practically, I like to have several t-shirts and more than one spoon. Stuff gets dirty and I don’t always have the time to clean it straight away. So when I see posts online about reducing my wardrobe to 30 pieces it scares me off a little.
So when I recently heard about the Swedish concept of lagom - loosely translated as ‘not too much, not too little, just enough’ - it sparked something in my brain. Perhaps minimalism doesn’t have to be merely an inventory of my possessions - maybe it can instead become a philosophy for learning to live with less.
The term lagom hit the headlines earlier this year and is in danger of replacing hygge as the latest buzzword. We seem to have become a little obsessed about emulating the Scandinavian way of life, and for good reason.
The 5 Nordic countries all featured in the top 10 of a 2016 Gallup report which ranked 156 countries by happiness. This in comparison with the UK who came in 23rd, and the USA in 13th.
So it would be safe to conclude that we can learn something from these folks.
The criteria used to measure happiness included GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption. Of course, happiness is deeply impacted upon by the wealth, health and political status of a country, but the two outliers to this explanation - social support and generosity - explain how some poorer countries score highly on the happiness scale (for example, Brazil comes out ahead of both Singapore and Luxembourg).
These two factors may also explain how the Nordic countries continue to hold the edge over other equally developed nations. In stark contrast to the UK and USA, where competitiveness between individuals is praised and encouraged, the Nordic culture places high regard upon collective effort. In fact, the Scandinavian Law Of Jante goes as far as to negatively portray and criticise individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. Open displays of egotism or exibitionism are seen as vulgar and distasteful.
This culture of collective accomplishment makes for an unusually strong network of social support, mutual trust and sharing of resources. When an emphasis is placed upon a win-win mindset, as opposed to the win-lose attitude that abounds in other cultures, a move can be made towards what Stephen Covey called the ‘abundance mentality’.
Win-lose means that in order for one person to succeed, another has to fail. This mentality assumes there is a scarcity of resources that must be fought over in order for a victor to be crowned. This reasoning has close ties to the theory of evolution (the survival of the fittest), and is perpetuated in many Western school systems through distribution curves (for one student to get an A, another must get an F) and through our love of sports (for our team to win, another must lose).
When a person approaches life with a scarcity mentality, they find it hard to share credit and resources. They may secretly loath to celebrate the success of others, concerned that another person’s positive news must mean a loss for them somewhere along the line. For these people, their sense of worth lies in how they compare with others, instead of how they are performing in line with their personal potential.
The abundance mentality offers a different perspective on winning. It makes a move away from the dichotomies of strong versus weak, give versus take, win versus lose. It sees value in the collective sum being greater than the individual parts. It doesn’t see ‘your way versus my way’, it sees a better way - a celebration of effective teamwork that brings about mutually beneficial results for all involved.
When we take away the need to compete for money, status and worth - to triumph over others in order to flourish - the desire to collect trophies of success diminishes. We no longer need to adorn our bodies, homes and conversations with the baubles of victory. We become satisfied with having enough.
This is my interpretation of the essence of lagom. Enough becomes enough. Possessions are valuable for their practical applications, as opposed to their symbolic statuses. A surplus of resources becomes an opportunity for collaboration and sharing.
By eliminating the superfluous, we open the door to increased freedom. Without the shackles of excess, we can focus more on our passions and our personal growth. By clearing out our clutter and chaos - and choosing to live with a win-win mindset - we can contribute beyond ourselves.
Lagom and minimalism share many similarities. Both advocate the importance of mindful intent when choosing the possessions we bring into our lives. Both champion the gift of shared resources - of the abundance mentality. Both have at their heart the belief that there is more to life than the stuff we own, and that if we’re not careful our stuff will one day own us.
So, in fact, it’s not a questions of whether we should choose lagom or minimalism as our guiding light in the quest for simplicity, freedom and happiness. We can take lessons from both as we walk the path of positive change. What’s important is how their messages resonate with you personally, and what impact those messages will have on your life and happiness.
Applying this way of living can support change in many areas of life. By giving more careful consideration to the things we possess and consume, we can lose weight, eradicate debt and improve our relationships among many other things.
Here are 3 practical ways to include lagom and minimalism in your life:
- Ask yourself, ‘what is enough for me?’. The answer to this question will be different for everyone. Look at all aspects of your life, from your finances to your possessions to your relationships. What does good look like? Do you have enough, too much or too little in each area? What would you need to do to make a positive change?
- Every time you consume food or make a purchase, ask yourself, ‘what purpose is this serving?’. Purpose is a subjective concept, and again the answers to this question will be different for everyone. They can even be different for one person depending on the circumstances of the moment. For example, eating cake on a Tuesday morning when you’re in a meeting probably doesn’t serve much purpose. But at your wedding? It becomes a symbolic gesture of love and happiness, a moment to savour and cherish.
- Look around you - what could you get rid of, and why would that make your life better? This exercise is best used over the course of many days and weeks. Make it a conscious habit to question the purpose of your possessions, and become an expert at making decisions about what you do and do not need. Give stuff away that serves no purpose in your life but that could add value to someone else. Upcycle things that have the potential for new uses.
Lagom and minimalism don’t have to be scary, extreme ways of living. At their core, they are simply philosophies designed to free us from the burdens of excess. They are there to provoke thought - to ask for our consideration when we bring new things into our world. Use them as a tool for self analysis, and you might just set yourself free.
Further reading on minimalism: