A photographer and writer, born in Nigeria, having lived in the US and now based in Stockholm since 2009, it was probably inevitable that Lola Akinmade-Åkerström would write a book about lagom at some point.
The Swedish word, which means something like “just right”, is the latest Scandi trend to hit the global stage, and has been described by the likes of Vogue as an “ethos of moderation” governing Swedish society. But there is more to it than meets the eye. The Local spoke to Akinmade-Åkerström about what she learned about it and herself when she started writing her new book – Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well.
READ ALSO: Eight things in Sweden that aren't so lagom
Lola Akinmade-Åkerström. Photo: Private
How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?
I was actually approached out of the blue by UK publisher Hachette/Headline to collaborate because they had found an in-depth article I had written on Lagom for Roads & Kingdoms/Slate about four years ago.
As you are not originally from Sweden, did you find it hard to understand lagom?
At the beginning when I first moved to Sweden many years ago, lagom was a bit tricky to grasp until I realised it was a shape-shifter. Lagom changes meaning in different settings and situations. Once I grasped that, then I fully understood lagom at its core.
What has been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge with lagom especially for those who come from cultures steeped in community mindsets is the distance lagom personally keeps, lack of acknowledgement, and the close circles it builds around its own. So in the book, I explain this in more depth and why this happens (good or bad) so people from other cultures who have to interact with lagom fully understand this and don't collectively dismiss it as Swedes just being cold.
You said that lagom means 'just right' and also that the principle of lagom can be interpreted in different ways by different people, so can it create conflicts in the community?
Actually, I define lagom as “optimal”. Meaning, the decision we choose to make at a particular moment or about a certain interaction or situation is the best holistic choice for us individually or for the group, we find ourselves in. That is what lagom at its core tries to do.
My personal lagom isn't your lagom and because we can't measure lagom equally and apply it with the same brush across society, it does cause some conflict and misunderstandings. For one, the jantelagen aspect, which I call Cousin Jante throughout my book, adds a complicated layer on top of lagom.
Plus, because lagom naturally keeps space and distance out of personal consideration for the other party, this can in many cases be misconstrued as apathy which isn't necessarily true.
READ ALSO: How I tackled Sweden's law of Jante
The front cover of the book. Credit: Lola Akinmade Åkerström
Can lagom be considered a human principle instead of a Swedish one?
Lagom is most definitely a human principle because it pushes us to find our own individual levels of contentment, inner peace, and most natural operating state. What makes it a very Swedish (or Nordic) is just how often lagom pulls us from individual focus to group focus.
How has moving to Sweden changed you?
Now living in Sweden, this means I have lived with three very distinct cultures for extended periods of time to fully grasp all their nuances and that is why it was super easy for me to fully understand how lagom operates.
And the beauty is that I get to pick and choose which aspect of lagom appeals the most to me and apply to some aspects of my own life and leave the more unattractive qualities of lagom behind.
Do Swedes really live their lives according to this principle? Isn't lagom a bit too hyped-up, like the Danish hygge?
Lagom is definitely being hyped up by the UK and international market and from the clichéd craze, you would think Swedes were having picnics and baking cinnamon buns at home every day and spicing it not too much, not too little, just right!
My book screams “Stop! This is what lagom truly means” and provides a much deeper view of lagom from practically all angles so foreigners understand what it means, how it operates, how it interacts with them as foreigners and they can choose which aspects of lagom appeals to them to apply to their own lives.
Because I live and interact with lagom every single day, that informed the angle and way I was going to write this book. I wanted to write a book that promotes cultural understanding, not one that focused on lagom superficially.
Which country or who do you think nowadays needs a bit more lagom?
Lagom is definitely not perfect but considering I also lived in the US for extended periods of time, a little lagom – moving from 100 percent individual focus to a bit more group focus – won't hurt and frankly, is needed on some level.
Lola Akinmade-Åkerström is a Stockholm-based writer and photographer who contributes to publications such as National Geographic Traveler, AFAR, The Telegraph, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Channel, Fodors.com, New York Magazine and many more.