Never put work before life; from midnight swims to beach barbecues, your go-to guide to the Swedish way of living

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You only need to wander around Stockholm at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon to understand that the Nordic way of life runs at an entirely different pace to that of the UK. When every British high street is a throng of teenage girls and predatory chuggers, in Sweden the streets are serene and the doors of Acne, J Lindeberg and Cheap Monday are closing.

Saturday evenings are sacred, and they are certainly not for manic consumption. As Team Stylist explored Sweden, it was hard to ignore how happy, how friendly and relaxed locals seemed. Coffee breaks aren’t grabbed between 3 and 3.05pm; they’re enjoyed, at a table, with cake.

Despite having just three months that could constitute summer, midnight swims, beach barbecues and campfires are all standard activities.

To frazzled Londoners, the Swedish rules for living seem revolutionary. “We do have a pretty nice life,” admits Stockholm-based psychologist and disarmingly healthy-looking Cecilia Duberg. “Spending time in beautiful surroundings, staying active and eating together are essential for most Swedes.”

The flip-side is that, come December, the sun barely makes an appearance. “The cold, dark winters can be challenging,” she explains, “but adapting to the changing seasons is a way to stay mindful.”

From eating in season to embracing the outdoors, here are six rules for living Swedish-style we should all try to follow. 

Share the land with others

This isn’t just a pithy slogan in Sweden – it’s part of the constitution. Allemansrätten, or ‘the right of public access’, allows everyone to roam freely, even on private land, as well as pitch a tent and forage for lunch. The only rule is to be considerate to others, summed up in the phrase ‘Don’t disturb, don’t destroy’ – a good mantra for life.

“Allemansrätten is very important to many Swedes,” says Per Nilsson from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. “We need it to live the life we want.” More than 80% of the population lives within five miles of a national park, nature reserve or conservation area, and studies show that spending time in natural surroundings reduces stress, boosts mental health and even lowers blood pressure. Swedes learn to appreciate nature from an early age, with many five-year-olds attending Saturday ‘nature school’ and older children learning basic foraging and map reading skills.

As Nilsson says, “The more you know about nature, the more you care about the environment.” An impressive 99% of household waste is recycled or used to produce electricity, and renewable sources account for 51% of the country’s energy. Swedes also buy more organic food than almost anywhere else, with ‘concern for the environment’ cited as the biggest motivation.  

Live off what nature provides

“The Swedish approach to food is all about seasonal, local and organic,” says Uppsala-based food writer and stylist Liselotte Forslin. “We love to forage. It’s totally normal to spot a family in the woods with plastic buckets picking berries and mushrooms and there are a few classic dishes that most Swedes have in their post-foraging repertoire, such as nettle soup with boiled egg halves and blueberry pie.”

Globalisation may have brought the world miso and kimchi, but Swedes tend to eat what’s growing in the fields and fjords next door – and for good reason. The long dark winters mean traditional curing methods such as pickling and smoking still hold muster (how else will that herring last until March?) and largely indestructible vegetables such as rutabaga (what we call swedes – no, it isn’t a coincidence) and potatoes figure heavily on the menu.

There’s a similar story when it comes to dining out, many restaurants and cafes grow their own produce. Jacob Holmström, chef at Michelin-starred Stockholm restaurant Gastrologik, says, “We harvest many of our ingredients ourselves – so we can be a bit ‘nerdy’ about it – but our style of cooking is simple: when you have top quality produce, you don’t have to do much to it.”

Never let work overtake life

The Scandinavian work/life balance has long been a source of envy and Sweden recently topped the polls for quality of life and happiness in a Eurostat study. With an average working week of 40 hours (in the UK, it’s 43.6) and those endless summer evenings, Swedes already have ample opportunity to iron out life’s everyday stresses. Not only that, the incredibly generous parental leave laws allow parents to take their allotted 480 days over eight years per child, meaning that should a family wish to take a six-week summer holiday every year, it’s absolutely within their grasp.

Many urban Swedes own a traditional cabin in the country, used as a weekend escape. They also take time out of their schedule for fika – a word that defies literal translation but is a Swedish institution, usually involving a chat, coffee and cake. In fact, the average Swede eats an equivalent of 316 cinnamon buns a year according to the Swedish Board of Agriculture and Statistics (don’t they look well on it?), which is bound to make them happy. Of course, life’s not perfect. As Duberg says, “Swedes still struggle with stress and workloads the same as everywhere else. But we do a pretty good job at balancing it out with a healthy lifestyle, great food, exercise and fika – a time to relax.” 

Home is where the heart is

With long winters and sub-zero temperatures, in Sweden ‘home’ is so much more than a place to sleep. “We get a reputation for being introverted,” says Malmö-based stylist Mia Berg, “but for a lot of the year we have to stay indoors because of the dark and the cold. So our homes are our havens. Precisely why we prefer to entertain at home, and the reason why design is such a big deal.”

The ethos behind the Swedish aesthetic is rooted in basic living principles. A large kitchen is a must, as food is so integral, as well as big windows “for free ‘light therapy’ all year round,” says interior designer Emma Fischer, based in Gothenburg. There’s a typical approach to interiors. “We like white walls, wooden floors and rooms that have a light, airy feel,” she explains. A lot of furniture is made from lighter wood, like pine, and there’s a trend for warm metals such as brass, gold and copper. “We have a lot of lamps rather than overhead lights, and we mix modern pieces with vintage furniture to give a personal touch,” says Fischer. “It’s a kind of, ‘What, this old chest of drawers? It was my grandma’s’ vibe rather than having a home that looks like a furniture shop. And because Swedes love nature, you see a lot of big plants in people’s homes.”     

Don’t let the weather stop you 

Swedes have a saying, which translates roughly as: “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.” So at the first sign of spring, usually around April, Swedes wrap up and get outside. “The weather can be quiet erratic,” admits Fischer, “but instead of going back inside when it’s cold, you go and get another jumper.” Forslin agrees: “As soon as the sun appears and it gets over 5°C, we run outside. Even if it’s freezing. We have lots of public fire-pits and it’s great to go cross-country skiing or hiking and then barbecue or have a picnic somewhere.”

Babies, however, get to grips with the sub-zero temperatures throughout the year. Winter in Stockholm can see the temperature drop below freezing but while mum and dad sit inside and warm their hands on steaming lattes, babies are left outside in their buggies to nap, the thinking being that exposure to fresh air is healthier than being stuck inside and helps ward off diseases. When the temperature drops to -15°C the prams are wrapped with blankets, but the children remain outside. It’s safe to say the Swedish addiction to being outside starts young. In fact, the Swedes love being outside so much that 25% of the population are members of an official outdoor organisation. Take that, snow.     

Accept that things are 'good enough'

“The good life in Sweden is about experiences rather than possessions,” says Stockholmbased psychologist Hoa Ly. “There’s a word in Swedish, ‘lagom’, which means ‘good enough’, or ‘just the right amount’, and it really sums up the Swedish cultural, social and democratic ideals. Being a nice person and having close friends is more important than having a flashy car. And with famously high taxes [up to 70% of your salary according to some studies], Swedes wouldn’t stay here if we were totally money motivated.” So your house is ‘lagom’, your salary is ‘lagom’, and even your five-yearold jumper that’s a little bobbly but very warm, is still ‘lagom’.

Instead of ‘acquiring’ the newest fashions or technology, Swedes like ‘doing’. “From spending time with our kids, to eating food with friends, being active outdoors and pursuing hobbies,” says Ly. Singing is a hugely popular pastime in the land of Abba and Sweden has the highest number of choirs per capita in the world – something else that’s been proven to increase emotional wellbeing. But there’s one more thing Swedes do differently. “We’re also grateful,” says Duberg. “We know we have a good life and we’re thankful. It makes us feel good.”

Life is lagom.

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Stylist Team