Are Swedes good for your health? Our culture correspondent on Scandinavian philosophy which – it is claimed – can help you live longer
It’s not easy being Swedish. The Danes have their ‘hygge’, the cult of cosiness that swept the globe last year whose fairy-light-festooned remnants are still clinging on for dear life in the basements of many interiors stores. The Norwegians have the art of chopping, stacking and drying firewood, as exemplified in the award-winning publishing sensation, Norwegian Wood. (Seriously.) But now the Swedes are fighting back with their own homegrown life philosophy: ‘lagom’, the art of maintaining a balanced life for the sake of physical and mental health.
Dr Bertil Marklund, a Swedish doctor, professor of general medicine and specialist in public health, has become the spokesperson for ‘lagom’, with his book The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer, already published in 27 languages, most recently in Italy and Ireland. ‘Lagom’ translates as ‘just the right amount’, ‘in balance’, ‘in moderation’ and ‘perfect-simple’. Dr Marklund’s advice is what you would expect. Don’t smoke. Get some sun but not too much sun. Exercise for 30 minutes a day. Avoid ‘stress and hopelessness’, especially in middle age. Take Omega 3 and Omega 6. Embrace turmeric drinks. Eat lots of berries and vegetables. Have fish several times a week.
This easy-to-read, short guide has been a book of the week in the Vancouver Sun, lauded as ‘The Scandinavian Secret’ in Poland and dubbed ‘the ultimate guide to avoiding Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s’ in the Spanish press. Dr Marklund believes that by adopting very simple lifestyle changes that are popular in Sweden, anyone can extend their life expectancy by ten years: ‘Swedish nature encourages outdoor activities and rejuvenating exercise. Our diet is healthy – lots of berries, vegetables, oily fish, and seafood. The Swedish mentality of ‘lagom’ also helps.’ (I find it also helps to read all his quotes in a comedy Swedish accent.)
Dr Marklund is based in Gothenburg, where he is a professor at the university. The success of his book has taken him rather by surprise. He had been quietly toiling away doing his research, extolling the virtues of moderation, largely ignored for four decades. Then an appearance on Swedish television sent sales of the book rocketing. ‘I had to quickly get a lot of new books printed,’ he told the Times, ‘Which my wife and I spent endless days and nights packaging and distributing ourselves.’ Now he has a host of international publishers who do the job for him. Now that is proper balance.
The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer has come out at the same time as a study in the Lancet which declared Norway to be the healthiest country in the world, alongside Iceland and Singapore. The life expectancy of Swedish men is 80.3 years. For women it’s 84.1 years. The UK came in at number 20 in the rankings. Life expectancy here is 79.1 years for men, 82.8 years for women. Surely it’s worth being a bit Nordic just to eke out a few more years. Dr Marklund thinks so. ‘The rest of your life has just begun. How are you going to live it? […] You have the chance to change your lifestyle, so my final tip is: start today – or tomorrow!’ (I think he really means: start today.)
He was inspired to collect studies about longevity by the death of his parents, who, he says, both died ’10 or 20 years too early.’ He took heart from research that showed that 75% of ageing is down to lifestyle factors. Only 25% is genetic. Much of his advice, though, sounds like (very sensible) self-help rather than medical instruction. ‘Surround yourself with positive people.’ ‘Be generous towards others.’ ‘Laugh and smile.’ (No-one is ever going to say any of this is bad advice.)
What’s interesting about Dr Marklund’s work is that it is just as much focused on the social side of life as it is on physical health. He repeatedly advises that you must avoid loneliness at all costs, keep your mind active, take up new hobbies, cultivate relaxation techniques, turn off mobile devices and computers in the evening. Tip number 10 in the book is ‘We Need Each Other.’ ‘There is a deep-seated need for social relationships and human support in order to survive and stay healthy. Social intercourse may well have been one of the key strategies for the survival of the human race.’
Of course, some humans do seem to be surviving better than others and it has almost become a cliché to note that the Scandinavians are particularly good at cultivating a pleasant existence for themselves. Is all that down to this elusive idea of ‘balance’? Yes and no. As Richard Orange, a British journalist living in Sweden, has written in the Guardian, ‘lagom’ is an incredibly complex and sometimes frustrating thing. It is not the answer to all life’s problems, it turns out. In fact, the very idea of balance makes many Swedes feel furious and hemmed in.
He writes that, yes, some Swedes are obsessive about being ‘middle of the road’, not standing out, not taking things too far. The epitome of ‘a good thing’ to lagom-focused Swedes is semi-skimmed milk (mellanmjolk): full fat milk is too exciting; skimmed milk is too self-denying. But the Swedes are not without self-awareness, he explains: ‘To call a film, popstar or decoration ‘mellanmjolk’ is as likely to be an insult as a compliment.’ The whole concept has led to a lot of introspection about whether Swedes should in fact be more outspoken and flamboyant and embrace their idiosyncrasies. They are tired of drinking semi-skimmed milk. They want to go to extremes.
It’s hard to ignore the advice of the extremely sensible (and presumably semi-skimmed-milk-drinking) Dr Marklund. He looks happy and lustrous of locks at the age of 71. ‘Your age is how you feel,’ he says, ‘I am 71 but I feel like 50 and when I meet my grandchildren, I feel even younger. As a member of the 120 club, I aim to become 120.’ (The 120 club is an unofficial group of people who have decided to live to 120 by living ‘a very healthy, active and vibrant life’. The concept has been popularised by American writer Philip Rose’s book The 120 Club: Living the Good Life for 120 Years.)
There are some things to look forward to in Dr Marklund’s prescription for a long life: he recommends taking a nap during the day and has nothing against people drinking several cups of coffee a day. (To be fair, he says ‘a couple of coffees’ and he probably means that literally.) And if things go wrong? This is also good as it allows room for growth. ‘If a setback can been seen as a valuable and important experience, this increases the chances of things going better next time. Setbacks are good as they offer an opportunity to grow and develop.’ Even the bad stuff is good. Could this be any more ‘lagom’?