The opening scene in the movie Happy is unexpected and provocative: It's morning in a slum in India and people are waking up in a tarp–covered shack. There are buzzing mosquitoes and chickens scratching at the bare dirt. Breakfast is a glass of milky tea. A man heads off to his job as a rickshaw driver which he describes as hard given the abuse of his riders and the rigors of the hot sun and monsoon rains.
Next we learn that this same man, who clearly lives in material poverty, is as happy as the average American. Many people, not just Americans, might find this difficult to believe.
The camera pans back to his ramshackle house as he explains: "My home is good. One side is open, and air flows into the room nicely. During the monsoons we have some trouble with the rain blowing inside. Except for this, we live well." Smiling he says he feels like the richest person when he is with his children. He loves his neighbors, too, who have gathered nearby. Now instead squalor our focus is on their beaming faces filled with love.
Enough is not a sexy word in English. If it were a color it would be beige, and if it were a sound it would be a dull thud. Enough signals less than optimal in our New! Improved! Supersized! culture. In contrast, the Swedish word lagom translates as 'enough' but in a deeply gratifying way. It's what Goldilocks might have said upon tasting porridge that was just right. Lagom reflects the belief that there is a perfect amount of anything—food, space, work, play, joy, sadness, etc.—and that having just enough is ultimately much more rewarding than either too little or too much. A related Swedish expression underscores this sense of balanced perfection: "Enough is as good as a feast." Try saying that next time they ask you to supersize your burger.
Amidst our bulging waistlines, flabby debt, and chubby houses seeking fulfillment through enough can feel like trying to stand upright in a hurricane. Buffeted by more, bigger, and faster, it is difficult to hear our actual needs, which are often modest in their declarations. It's also challenging because once our desires have been swamped by too much, it's tricky to dial things back to that point of ideal satisfaction. We are wired to avoid loss at any cost, so when moving towards enough feels like we might lose something, we cling to our excesses thinking they are just enough.
The unexpected and provocative truth is that enough is mind–blowingly less than most of us reading this online essay have been led to believe. It is so much less as to be down right radical. While the opening scene in the Happy movie may feel extreme (it does to us!), enough is closer to that than most of what passes for the good life in popular media. We take our cues from those around us, and so if the Jones are seen having their fourth meal and a new i–thingy, then our sense of enough naturally ratchets up. Of course there are many people who don't have enough, even in the U.S., including otherwise affluent people who haven't enough time off, friendships, creative pursuits, etc. This is how lagom can address all kinds of imbalances, rich and poor. Just imagine this headline: Wall Street Exec, 'I Have Too Much!' Starts Fund for Inner City Math Nerds
What's enough? In some cases it's more objective than you might suppose, and in others it is so deeply personal that honing your metric is a very intimate process.
~ Enough sleep? Seven to nine hours.
~ Enough Facebook time? 5, 10, 15...minutes a day? (Do we hear a bid for more? For none?)
~ Enough living space? 1,200 square feet or less. (Read our reasoning here.)
~ Enough movies? 5, 10, 15...a week? (We admit 15 seems excessive.)
One way to find your personal lagom is to take a break from time to time. Media diets, secular Sabbaths, and buying moratoriums are different examples of how to hit the pause button. By interrupting our habitual patterns we can begin to feel the impact of more as we slowly reintroduce whatever it is—sugar, sarcasm, shoes (you know who you are!), etc.—into our lives. If the issue is a matter of too little—as in down time, exercise, or flossing—then immersing yourself for at least a week, more likely a month, will help you to recalibrate.
It's time we said "Enough!" and loved every bit of it.
What's enough for you?
Friends Pleasure Laughter
Money Alcohol Creativity
Food Reflection Online connection
Work Diversion Real time connection
Try a brief fast from something you have too much of. (If a fast seems too radical, try cutting the amount in half.)
Now pick something you have too little of in your life and find a way to lavish yourself with it. Can you sense lagom for you?
Enough for now,
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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