The Nordic way: 9 reasons why Swedes live better
A little over a month ago, my family and I stayed with some of my Swedish relatives along our way from Italy to Ireland. They live in a lovely neighborhood just outside of Malmö, in southern Sweden. It wasn't even thirty minutes after we left the airport that we began to discover what makes the Nordic way of life so wonderful.
Without hesitation, my extended family's family transported our cumbersome circus of luggage to their home from the train station so we could finish our journey more comfortably. They welcomed us like family, even though we haven't seen each other in over a decade, and are basically strangers.
Just a week in Sweden was enough time for us to see why this Nordic nation is one of the most highly regarded societies on the planet. Their collective focus on social equality, human rights, sustainability, and public services make the country one of the best places to start and raise a family. Not only do the Swedes boast some of the highest life expectancies in the developed world, but their citizens are some of the happiest and their children are of the most educated.
And everyone is just so nice.
Oh, and nearly everything they use is recycled. We've been to a few places in our travels, and Sweden, along with the other Nordic countries, are by far and away the most environmentally conscious and friendly. They treat their rubbish better than most people treat themselves. How about that?
Sweden's simple beauty and proud culture provide more than enough reason to be smitten from the start. But why are the Swedes really so good at this whole life thing?
Nothing embodies the psyche of the Swedish quite like the idea behind the oh so Swedish word, lagom. A well known Swedish proverb, “Lagom är bäst”, means “the right amount is best.” It more literally translates to “enough is as good as a feast” or “there is virtue in moderation”. But how did this come about, and why is this word such a part of the culture?
Well, about a thousand years ago the Germanic Norse inhabited this part of the world. These farmers and sailors are more commonly known as Vikings, but it wasn't all about plunder and pillage to them, hence the alternate introduction. According to legend, or myth, they would settle in around a meal after a long day and a cup of mead would make it's way around the table. It became "a point of honor" to take only as much as was needed and leave enough for the rest. That doesn't quite jive with the notion of an axe-wielding Viking warrior, covered in blood, chugging the mead all for himself, does it?
In reality, that imagery couldn't be farther from the truth of how today's Viking descendants operate. The Swedes strive for fairness, mindfulness, and contentment over greed, gluttony, and indulgence.
The concept of lagom pertains to a vast majority of Swedish daily life. Whether it be diet, exercise, or the enjoyment of alcoholic drinks, there is always a sensible amount. Even in choosing their coffee, most won't stray too far from the sensible middle, so a medium roast sells better than light or dark. Moderation doesn't just apply to commodities, either. You'd be hard pressed to witness a Swede acting highly emotional, boisterous, or braggadocios. Most can speak multiple languages, but don't consider it worth fawning over.
Somewhere in between the extremes, usually erring on the side of reservation, with a focus on what is fair and appropriate, is where you'll find most Swedes. Life is all about being mindful, logical, and finding contentment through the stability of simplicity and knowledge of purpose.
Simple by design
What comes to mind when you think about Sweden? If you're like me and had never stepped foot there before, you think of its famous megastore, IKEA. There's a 9/10 chance you currently own a piece of the ubiquitous do-it-yourself furniture. If not, there's a 10/10 chance that someone you know does. That’s because the country has defined world class and iconic design standards for some time now. Simple yet effective, beautiful yet functional. Lagom seems to be the standard that IKEA designs are crafted to, if only to reach the standards Swedes expect.
The furniture is only the tip of the iceberg. You'll see a simple, less is more mentality applied in all aspects of the Swedish lifestyle. Homes are minimalistic and elegant, transportation is efficient and effective, and the design of everything around you is pleasingly ingenious yet effortless.
IKEA isn't the only worldwide sensation to come from Sweden. H&M hails from here as well. And as in Sweden, the clothing styles sold at H&M are generally more casual and simple than most stores with their pedigree. You don't typically see cutting-edge runway fashions like in Milan or Paris. Here you can expect comfortable sophistication and a functional style that you'd see on the streets of Stockholm or Malmö. That's just how it is in Sweden. 'Mysig' another super Swedish word, means being cozy and comfortable. Even in a typical business setting, jeans are often suitable office attire, because mysig reigns supreme.
Sustainability is a Swedish cornerstone
And that's really what makes Sweden so simply great. The country operates based on what makes sense. Taking care of our planet... it just makes sense. To that point, Sweden, and each of the other nordic countries, lead the rest of the world when it comes to sustainable practices. Maybe it's their proximity and relationship with the ocean, or maybe their understanding of balance. Whatever it is, Sweden ranks #1 on the planet in the Sustainable Development Goals Index.
Most impressively, Sweden recycles nearly all of their waste, almost to the point of insanity. It took a while for me to adjust, honestly. Diligently separating the rubbish into five seperate bins is as routine as washing the dishes. It seemed so foreign at first for us Americans, but then again how we operate back home was baffling to my Swedish cousin, Sofia.
As my husband did the dishes after dinner one night, she asked him about our garbage disposals in the sink. "So you just dump the food in the drain? Where does it go?" My husband thought for a second, but had no good answer. "It just, uh, goes..." They both stood with puzzled looks. That wastefulness seems counterintuitive, and there's really no defense for it. Being efficient and mindful of consumption is easy if everyone buys in, and everyone in Sweden has bought in.
Focus on self-reliance
Some of the reason the people of Sweden are so cognizant of the environment is because they know what matters. Like many European countries, Swedes take pride in their culture and raise their families according to their cultural values. To the Swedish, independence and accountability are what matters (maybe this is why Swedes are always so prompt).
Swedes are unique in that they highly value the importance of being self-sufficient. Once a child turns 18 years old, in all facets of life, they are not to be reliant on their parents. Even the elderly are financially independent and typically live separately from their adult children because Sweden understands the importance of high quality eldercare. But while being a self-reliant adult is important, it does not mean that the Swedes don't have a major focus on their family. Family holidays and dinners are a major part of that tradition, and these traditions become a part of their identity.
Focus on family
The government also sees the importance in their citizens spending time with their family. Swedish law allows new parents to share up to 480 days, or 16 months, of paid parental time off after having a child. This allows Swedish men to get much more paternity leave than their counterparts across the globe. Up until a child turns 12, most employers will be flexible with parental duties by reducing hours and allowing substantial paid time off for parents to take care of sick dependents. They even cover for a parent leaving work early to pick a child up from school. This real understanding of what family life entails, coupled with the offering of universal healthcare and free college education, only make Sweden more attractive to young families. Maybe this is why Sweden was recently declared the World’s Best Country to Raise Children.
Swedes also get five weeks consecutive vacation, typically in July and August before children head back to school. You may recognize a theme here: work isn’t everything to the Swedes. Don't confuse this with laziness, because the Swedes are not that. They pride themselves in their skills and they work very hard, but at the end of the day, raising a family comes first. As it should.
Fika! Fika! Fika!
What better way to focus on family than to take a break, slow down, and just socialize? Many European countries have afternoon coffee or tea breaks, but nobody else has Fika. This mid morning and late afternoon more-than-just-a-coffee-break is based around the Swede’s love for java, social connections, sweets, and then more java. Seriously, they are obsessed with a quality cup of Joe, and they drink a healthy amount of it. During the work day and even on the weekends, 3PM is fika time. The afternoon tradition not only boosts end-of-day productivity and morale, it gives the Swedes yet another reason to enjoy a fresh cup of some of the world’s finest brew. According to my family, if Sweden ran out of coffee the whole country would come to a screeching halt.
Focus on food
Fika isn't the only time the day slows down in Sweden. Coffee is a huge part of the culture, but daily life really centers around food. It’s not a grab-n-go lunch or taquito on the subway kind of society. Meals here are about slowing down to enjoy the company of your friends and family at a neatly prepared table full of clean Nordic cuisine.
When we say clean, we mean it because Swedish produce and meats are of some of the highest quality on the planet. Sweden meets and surpasses the European Union’s regulations that track food handling, organic farming, GMOs, and the humane treatment of livestock. Their ingredient and labeling standards are very strict. And just as the Swedes strive for sustainability in other aspects of their lives, the food they consume is no exception. When you buy Swedish products, you know what’s in it, where it came from and how it was produced. Even the water here is sparking clean and tastes better than anywhere else we've been.
In terms of diet, contrary to popular belief, Swedish meatballs don’t appear at every meal. Swedes love fresh fish, pickled everything, caviar, potatoes, jams, dairy, crisp breads, open-faced sandwiches, mushrooms, berries, and dill. The dairy aisle in a Swedish grocery store is a sight to behold! You will never see so many options for milk (including the beloved Filmjok, a fermented sour milk), hard cheeses, sours creams, and yogurts.
Traditional cooking practices still have a strong place in everyday Swedish lifestyle. Thursdays are "soup days" because years ago, Swedish maids worked less hours and serving soup was an easy alternative to fancier dishes. Saturdays, parents take children to the immaculate candy stores to get their fill of sweet treats. Ever heard of a smorgasbord? Well, the famous term comes from the Swedish practice of placing numerous hot and cold dishes on the table while the family eats together buffet-style. My favorite Swedish food tradition is the late summer feast of kräftskiva. Heaping mounds of crayfish are boiled with salt with a little sugar then served with copious amounts of dill and sour cream. You're also required to wear funny hats and crayfish bibs. Don't ask me why!
Remember when we mentioned that Swedes strive for what is fair and appropriate? Well, one of the cornerstones of Swedish society is a focus on equality. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, Sweden has ranked in the top four countries for gender equality in the world since 2006. The country also boasts one of the largest numbers of women holding public office on the planet. According to a recent Save the Children’s Every Last Girl report, Sweden has the highest opportunity index for little girls and it was recently rated as the Best Country to Raise a Daughter. Go Sweden!
Pride and humility
Sweden has a great society and they know it, but they won't wear you down bragging about themselves. I almost had to pry to get my family to open up about why they love where they live. What I finally found was so much more than I expected.
Swedes are mindful, reserved, and relaxed. They are proud, yet humble, and some of the happiest people on the planet. They are welcoming to other cultures and treat everyone fairly and equally. They are self-reliant and accountable. They know their heritage and celebrate it whenever they can. Most importantly, and most refreshing to me, is that not everyone is trying to outdo each other. Lagom is perfect, and in a way, more than enough.
Nothing in Sweden is more important than family, food, and fika. Holding true to this way of life is what makes the Nordic way so wonderful. But don't take our word for it, though. Go and experience it for yourself. You won't be disappointed.