A warm sense of connection to your team, a measured blend of life and work, and a concrete sense of happiness in the everyday: this could be the basis for most healthy workplace cultures. They are also embodied in the ideas of Hygge, Lagom, and Ikigai, three “lifestyle” concepts that have gained popularity in the West over the past few years.
While they have the allure of the foreign and the frustration of the totally unpronounceable, they are concepts that are integral elements of their cultures of origin. They are methods for searching for happiness and meaning in one’s personal life, something that’s now intricately tied to the professional. As we set goals and plan for the year ahead, learning about these concepts (including how to pronounce them) is an opportunity to consider how they could help us create a more balanced office culture and working life.
Origin: Denmark, Norway
Definition: coziness, warmth, a general sense of well-being.
The concept of Hygge gained popularity in the English-speaking world during the long, cold winter of 2016-17 and gave those living in chilly climates (or who just liked staying inside with a warm blanket) a way to see it through till spring. However, the concept is a distinct part of Danish and Norwegian culture and, according to The New Yorker, may even be the origin of the modern English word “hug.”
Hygge isn’t about hugging per say, but it is about the kind of feeling a good hug brings you: closeness, warmth, and a sense that all is well in the world. It conjures up a postcard kind of winter, the one only glimpsed through a fogged window as you sit cozily inside sipping tea, wearing fuzzy socks, and eating a pastry fresh from the oven.
This may seem like a stretch when it comes to the office, but as Danish author Meik Wiking explained to Elle UK: “Danes are aware of the decoupling between wealth and wellbeing… (they’re) good at focusing on what brings them a better quality of life.” The spirit of Hygge is something people want from their interior surroundings as the snow starts to fall outside and what a company would want to build for their employees: conviviality, a sense of connection and belonging, and a reason to want to stay.
Recreating the spirit of Hygge in the workplace can be as simple as managing the thermostat, getting some cider brewing on a hot plate, and gathering the office one morning a week for breakfast. While everyone can decide on what kind of socks they want to wear on their own time, a key aspect of Hygge is to create a sense closeness and opportunities to come together. A hygge office is a place where everyone feels comfortable, grounded, and like it’s a place they want to be.
Pronunciation: law-gom (with a hard g)
Definition: just right, balanced
Often brought up as the antithesis of Hygge, Sweden’s Lagom calls for more balance than cozy decadence. In essence, this word conjures up “the Goldilocks Principle” in her search for the perfect porridge: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Or, more accurately, it disavows excess in exchange for everyone getting a fair shake, something that’s an antithesis of many aspects of the more individually-focused American culture.
The concept of Lagon is deeply ingrained in Swedish culture as a desire for equality, teamwork, and no one going to extremes. After all, if everyone is pitching in then no one will have to shoulder the brunt of the work. As Lola Akinmade Åkerström of the BBC discovered after she moved to Sweden: “Lagom wants to push us to a space of individual contentment while creating harmony within whatever groups or societies we find ourselves.” That could also describe an ideal for a workplace culture.
Lagom can also be expressed through your office design. Though you may be quick to associate Swedish design with the ubiquitousness of IKEA, it’s more about the principles that guides the iconic furniture maker and other Swedish-influenced designers: Clean and simple lines, as much natural lighting as possible, and an uncluttered, open space. This allows for the underlying idea of Lagom to come to the fore: no excess and the ability to maximize communication so every voice can be heard.
Lagom can also be about how you bring everyone in the office together around a shared goal. For example, you could create an office sustainability project such as switching to paperless communications or recycling the majority of your office waste. It could get the whole staff involved and work towards a more ecologically balanced world. The important idea is that everyone is able to contribute and find balance within the collective project.
Many would actually hesitate to truly call Lagom the anti-Hygge: sometimes what’s best for your office may be a moment of coziness and comfort during a particularly tough week. It’s all about understanding your office’s particular culture and finding the “just right” way to keep things balanced, productive, and content—for everyone concerned.
Definition: happiness in life, reason to live
While many associate Japan with its crowded cities and long workdays, the BBC recently reported that the average lifespan in Japan is much longer than in the west. While the reasons for this are complex, the Japanese concept of Ikigai can ensure that the those lives are not only long, but well-lived. Ikigai is a philosophy that insists on each person finding meaning in their daily life. It focuses on about small moments of happiness that adding up to a satisfying life. Instead of fixating on huge life goals, Ikigai focuses on finding happiness in the day-to-day, which can add up to achieving those huge life goals.
Ikigai encourages mindfulness, and acknowledges that it’s easy to get caught up in daily frustrations and lose focus on the good. Instead, by taking the time to focus on the positive, and Ikigai guides its followers to live a life full of meaning from those moments of positivity.
Ikigai’s focus on everyday life (as opposed to the much grander concept of Life) is the key to making use of this philosophy in the workplace. Coworkers who wish to practice Ikigai could start with a chart or a list where they can record their small moments of contentment and success. It doesn’t even have to be a written notation, but could be a symbol or color. For example, it could be similar to the bullet journaling concept: marking a calendar with a small dot and using different colors to represent different types of successes. As you record your moments of successes and satisfaction it can be rewarding to how those colored dots add up.
Realizing how many moments of happiness each person can find in a day can help increase the office’s morale as a whole, especially if the project if undertaken jointly. As Toshimitsu Sowa, CEO of HR consulting firm Jinzai Kenkyusho explains: “In a culture where the value of the team supersedes the individual, Japanese workers are driven by being useful to others, being thanked, and being esteemed by their colleagues.” Coming together to realize that their work is making a positive effect on others can be another dot on each worker’s happiness chart.
Overall, the takeaway from these concepts doesn’t lie in their earmarks—hot cider, natural wood, a color-coded chart—but the common need that they speak to: to find purpose in your daily life and a sense of belonging at your work. While each of these ideas is highly nuanced and connected to the culture that the come from, the current interest in these concepts in the United States and Europe points to the fact that we are collectively looking for a more rewarding, balanced way to live. For a deeper look of each of these concepts, the following books can provide more insight into incorporating them into your everyday life:
Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living, Linnea Dunne
Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Healthy Life, Héctor García
As our lives increasingly revolve around work, incorporating concepts that help us feel fulfilled in and outside of the office can have a positive impact on our collective happiness and productivity. Hygge, Lagom, and Ikigai can all be guides to building a workplace where your whole team can cultivate a sense of belonging and work together in harmony.
Photography by Melissa Morgan Walbridge