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The Map to Happiness: Sweden and ‘Lagom’

As I stepped into the freezing cold water of the Thames I wondered whether this was such a great idea after all. What had started out as a fun, harmless experiment suddenly seemed like the very real risk of hypothermia. Wading further into the river I called back to my friends shivering in the shallows. It’s fine (it wasn’t), Honestly it’s not too cold when you get in (it was). But even though I was lying through my chattering teeth, I felt a huge grin spreading across my face as we began to swim. Maybe, I thought, the Swedes are onto something here. 

Our trip to Port Meadow had been inspired by the Swedish idea of lagom, or more specifically by the Scandinavian Winter Bathing Championships. Held in the town of Skellefteå every year, competitors in the race must plunge into 0.3⁰ water wearing nothing but swimming costumes and a hat. Our version of wild swimming was more Butlins than Bear Grylls, but that was what made it lagom. It was enough but not too much. A perfect balance. 

When I spoke to Dr Kersti Börjars she described lagom as “not too little, not too much”, saying “lagom is not just an upper boundary it’s lower boundary as well, it’s important to have a little of [everything]”. The phrase itself is derived from the Swedish word for law and so originally meant “(according) to the law”. However, in folklore it’s origins are said to date back to Viking times, when warriors would pass a horn of mead between them, with “lag” meaning team and “om’ meaning around, so that it literally meant “around the team”.

After our conversation she lent me a Swedish game called Kubb, which involved a different kind of teamwork. Getting out and about, she explained, was important in Sweden and many people enjoyed spending time together outdoors. That afternoon we played Kubb in Uni Parks, which consisted of flinging wooden sticks at a row of blocks belonging to the opposing team in an attempt to knock them all down. It was very fun, and as I gleefully watched the other team’s blocks topple I could understand why the game brought so many people happiness. 

As part of lagom I also decided to wake up at 6:30 every day this week, in what can only be described as a peculiar form of self torture. I’m someone who values their sleep, and so waking up at this time didn’t exactly ‘spark joy’ as Marie Kondo would say. However, in “The Atlas of Happiness” Helen Russell writes that there is a particular Swedish word for the kind of happiness generated by waking up early. Daggfrisk means ‘dew fresh’ or “the kind of pure, clean feeling one might have from waking refreshed in the early morning at sunrise.” and so I felt that it was only fair to give it a go. 

Every morning I dragged myself out of bed and began the day hours earlier than usual. Once I’d gulped down a strong cup of coffee, I found that I could actually get quite a lot of work done. There was something very peaceful about starting the day with the early morning light streaming through the blinds, and it was satisfying to feel like I’d managed to get a chunk of work done before 10am. The only problem was that by the afternoon I was flagging and struggling to concentrate. In the evenings I often ended up collapsing into bed with the sinking feeling of having to do it all over again tomorrow. 

All in all, I decided that daggfrisk probably wasn’t for me but otherwise lagom had made me happier. Getting outside and going wild swimming had definitely boosted my serotonin levels and I was glad I’d made the time to try something new. I might not be signing up for the Scandinavian Winter Bathing Championships anytime soon, but I’ll definitely be heading back to Port Meadow this summer.

Artwork by Rachel Jung

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