The World Happiness Report consistently ranks Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden in their top 10 happiest countries in the world. So it’s no surprise that people around the world are paying attention to Scandinavian wellness concepts and trying to learn their secrets. This winter, as the sun dips and the snow rises, let’s look to those Nordic lifestyle gurus for guidance and tips for more contented living.
Clean Like You’re Dying
A new book out Jan. 2 is already generating buzz, likely due to its tough-to-talk-about duel topics of mortality and getting rid of things. The author of “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” Margareta Magnusson, says, “You won’t be taking any of it with you, so why hold onto it now?” What she lacks in sentimentality, Magnusson makes up for with good hard logic that actually has a scientific base. A team of UCLA researchers recently found that physical clutter overloads your senses, making you feel stressed, and impairing your ability to think creatively.
What separates this tome from the host of other recent books on organization is its motive for culling; this Swedish type of decluttering is called döstädning — with dö meaning “death” and städning meaning “cleaning,” it is quite literally telling you to hurry and purge before you die. Whereas Marie Kondo introduced us to the “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by encouraging us to keep only what sparks joy, Magnusson suggests getting rid of things preemptively. Her matter-of-fact motto is: “If you don’t love it, lose it. If you don’t use it, lose it.” Rather than focusing on what to keep, we turn our attention to what to let go.
In a video posted by her publisher, the no-nonsense author says, “One day when you’re not around anymore, your family would have to take care of all of that stuff and I don’t think that’s fair really.” The process, while slightly morbid, is also also super-considerate. It’s recommended that you begin this “cleaning” when you hit your 50s and continue winnowing until death.
Australian writer Hannah-Rose Yee embarked on a Swedish Death Cleaning trial that began with gently talking to her parents about their abundance of stuff — citing her father’s newspaper clippings as a fire hazard. Of their response, she said, “Reader, silence isn’t golden. It’s deafening.” Yee then turned her attention to winnowing her own things following Magnusson’s advice to give them to friends. She had some luck with gifting books and unopened skincare items and reported feeling lighter after her first attempts at death cleaning.
Whether you’re motivated by joy or death, the new year is a good time to clear the chaos. If you’re inspired to join the purge, be sure to refer to this handy guide to where to donate your unwanted items.
Live Like You’ll Be Here Forever
Last January, Vogue told us to “Forget Hygge: 2017 Will Be All About Lagom.” If you don’t remember enough about hygge (HOO-gah) to forget it, the Swedish word loosely translates to “coziness.” That chunky knit blanket? Hygge. The roaring fire? Hygge. Steamy hot chocolate, warm socks, you get it. It’s about removing the guilt from the simple pleasures in life. If you wanna hygge before you lagom, here’s a good primer.
Whereas with hygge, there’s no such thing as too much (wool), lagom’s (lar-gum) meaning is closer to “not too much, not too little, but just enough.” Put down that third cocoa, we’re talking moderation here, people. Lagom is about a way of life rather than a moment. In case we need convincing, IKEA has come to the rescue with their “Live Lagom Project” that’s all about leading a sustainable, health- and cost-conscious life. The retailer tells us, “You’d be surprised how much small tweaks to the everyday can impact both the world and your wallet … We believe that a lot of people doing a little will have a powerful impact.”
To be clear, lagom is not hygge’s opposite. It’s not about deprivation, but about longevity — yours and our planet’s. Here are some ideas for living a more lagom lifestyle:
- Engage your children in recycling.
- Take shorter showers.
- Instead of turning up the thermostat, layer up with blankets (hygge isn’t dead!).
- Ride your bike to close places instead of driving.
- Plant a garden if you have outdoor space or use pots indoors.
- Install LED light bulbs.
- Use a pressure cooker for faster meals that use less energy.
IKEA reminds us that moderation “can bring rewards and contentment.”
It’s clear that lagom is having a moment. Two new books on the topic (with nearly identical covers and titles) were released this October with a third out the day after Christmas. In “Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living,” author Linnea Dunne defines the concept broadly. She says, “Lagom is about accepting an invitation to spend the weekend at a friend’s house but bringing your own bed sheets because it’s fair to share the burden of laundry. It’s having the right to stay at home with a sick child — pay intact — but never abusing that right.”
Meanwhile Niki Brantmark states in her book, “Lagom: Not Too Little, Not Too Much, The Swedish Art of Living a Happy, Balanced Life,” that ”Whether it’s applied to work, leisure, family and relationships, holidays and celebrations, interior design, or living in a way that’s kinder to the planet, the Swedes will often tell you that lagom är bäst — the right amount is the best and moderation is key.” She does point out, though, that Swedes do engage in excess occasionally — they just don’t punish themselves over it. That sounds perfectly hygge!
Find Your Happy Place
Speaking of hygge, Meik Wiking, the author of “The Little Book of Hygge” which looked at why Denmark is ranked the very happiest nation in the world, recently released “The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest People.” Lykke (LOOK-ah) is the Danish word for “happiness.” With his newest offering, Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, looks at how other countries are leading the way in cultivating happiness.
So what inspiration can we gain from other countries’ practices? He breaks the concept of happiness into six categories: togetherness, money, health, freedom, trust, and kindness, and discusses each. For example, for the idea of “togetherness,” Wiking cites scientific findings that “the more often people meet, the happier they are.” This seems to prove true the Dutch proverb that it’s better to have a good neighbor than a distant friend.
The book also shares cultural practices that could impact lykke. For example, in France, there’s great value placed on mealtimes and joy is derived from sharing a table. In Bhutan, school days often begin and end with “brain brushing,” a visceral term for meditation or a few minutes of quiet, reflective time. Wiking also mentions a practice from Japan, “shinrin-yoku,” which translates to “forest bathing” without nudity or water. Rather, it means “soaking up the sights, smells and sounds of a natural setting to promote physiological and psychological health.”
It’s hard to pin down an ephemeral concept like lykke, but Wiking does his best to offer real-world strategies backed by data. He encourages efficiency by pairing activities like socializing and exercising (working out with a friend) and being prepared to make use of “slack time” we have throughout the day, like that spent in a doctor’s waiting room (he uses his to learn Spanish). Wiking also suggests setting strict deadlines for work since “you are likely to be more efficient if you have less time.”
Once you döstädning, adopt lagom, and embrace lykke, you’ll have mastered the physical, philosophical, and emotional pillars to contented Scandinavian living. And if you’re exhausted from the sheer magnitude of trying to remember the pronunciation of all of these life-changing Nordic principles, then it’s time for a break. Luckily, the Swedes have a term for that too: fika, which means simply “to have coffee and a treat.” Finally, a Scandinavian happiness hack that takes less than an hour and doesn’t require the purchase of a book!
Pamela Rothbard is a writer and photographer living in Glencoe, Illinois. Her work has appeared in various literary and mainstream magazines and on National Public Radio and her parenting and baking blog, Flour on the Floor, was featured in Better Homes and Gardens. Pamela has been a regular Make It Better contributor since 2013. When she’s not behind a keyboard or a camera, she’s trying new recipes and restaurants and adding another layer of clothing because she’s always cold. Pamela is also a supporter of no-kill shelters and animal rescue organizations (her favorites are PAWS Chicago and Best Friends in Utah). Find her on Twitter and Instagram @pamelarothbard.