What Sisu Can Teach Us About Well-Being

Lessons from the happiest country in the world.

Posted Aug 27, 2018

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

There is a winsome little word in Finnish that carries the wisdom of five centuries on its lithe shoulders. Lately, with Finland’s climb to the top of world happiness rankings, it has also been carrying the glare of a global spotlight. The word is sisu. Despite it’s playful sound, it stands for something monumental, with closest translations scattered along the bold lines of grit, determination and perseverance. Sisu is perhaps easier to grasp in images, rather than words. Like the image of Finnish soldiers in the brutal cold of the Winter War, defying all odds against the mighty Soviet army to preserve Finland’s independence. Or the image of endurance athletes stretched to their limits, urging their exhausted feet forward, step after step. Or the image of weightlifters, with bulging muscles and protruding veins, their wills and their weights a droplet of sweat away from toppling. And yet, there they are, tapping into hidden reserves of inner strength and prevailing – crossing finish lines and lifting trophies above their heads.

What is sisu?

So what is sisu and where does it come from? For Finnish researcher Emilia Lahti, sisu is many things. It’s a non-cognitive quality, like courage. It’s a soft skill, like integrity. It’s a character trait. It’s a cultural mindset. It’s an invitation for self-reflection – a call for personal responsibility to use our powers for a greater good. For example, when Lahti asked 1000 of her participants what Finland would look like if people had more sisu, the picture that emerged was of a society with more trust, honor and openness.

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

Sisu is also a spiritual life force, like some of the biggest mysteries of the human experience. “Imagine how the female womb is able to create consciousness,” observes Lahti. “The life force that creates new life is somehow linked to the life force that allows people to transcend their boundaries, pain, uncertainty, fear.” It was this life force, this fusion of physical exertion and surrender, that helped Lahti earlier this year when she ran 1500 miles across New Zealand as part of her Ph.D. research and for her nonprofit Sisu Not Silence, promoting nonviolence and peace. 

Sisu as an ingredient for a good life

Sisu is clearly useful in winning mental and physical battles when faced with challenges. But it can also be a key ingredient in the recipe of a good life. The path connecting sisu and well-being begins at the extraordinary space – between vulnerability and resilience – where sisu usually catches us. “We do really well when we are exploring our strengths and exceeding ourselves, when we are transforming barriers into frontiers,” says Lahti. “We witness how we can change our world with our actions. It gives us a sense of meaning and autonomy; a sense of accomplishment and purpose.”

CC0/Unsplash
Source: CC0/Unsplash

And then there are the much-talked-about, well-being-boosting merits of the Nordic lifestyle. In her book Finding Sisu, author Katja Pantzar writes about the ways Finns regularly and seamlessly incorporate sisu into their everyday lives. These include swimming in icy waters (the season starts in November and can stretch until April), steaming in ubiquitous saunas (there are around 3.3 million saunas in Finland for their 5.5 million inhabitants), biking to work (by 2050, Helsinki may become the bike capital of Northern Europe, with many employees biking to work on company bikes), walking in forests (72 percent of Finland is covered in forests; it has 16 times more forest per capita than other European countries), eating balanced meals (the Nordic diet consisting of whole grains like rye and barley, vegetables, fatty fish, legumes and berries is known for its health benefits and is also eco-friendly) and living in harmony with seasons (vivacious summers, color-drenched autumns, snowy winters, short-but-delightful springs – each season comes with its own rituals and spectacles). 

Sisu and well-being

But the link between sisu and well-being extends beyond our everyday behaviors to our attitudes towards our lives – in times of light and darkness alike. Paradoxically, the world’s happiest country has a rather sober outlook on happiness and a more accepting approach towards setbacks which, according to Finnish philosopher Frank Martela, increases the Finns’ satisfaction with life.

CC0/Unsplash
Source: CC0/Unsplash

“A significant part of our happiness is determined by how we face adversaries,” explains Martela. “Sisu, as an attitude of commitment and refusal to give in, can help us in these situations. Instead of taking the challenges as failures or as evidence that one is not happy, one almost welcomes them as a chance to show what one is made of. Thus, I believe that the better one is in facing adversaries with an accepting and courageous attitude, the easier it is to experience well-being and happiness, even when life is not making it easy for one.” 

Humans have an insatiable fascination with foreign terms of well-being. The Japanese ikigai, the Danish hygge – there have been many of them that, like the Finnish sisu, have been thrust into the world’s limelight. It’s as if these hard-to-translate words, these century-old philosophies, carry within them universal secrets to a life of virtue and meaning. And it’s as if studying these words and their elusive meanings will help us discover happiness for ourselves. Like the other culture-specific words, sisu offers compelling insights into the human experience.

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

It reminds us of our power to persevere, our ambitions of integrity and our responsibility towards the greater good. It shows us that braving through inevitable adversaries requires grit as much as surrender. It teaches us that joy, often, prefers that we don't chase after it; instead, it likes to find its way to us – quietly and unannounced. Finally, just as sisu, these words remind us that there are a thousand recipes for leading a good life, and that despite our distinct lexicons and ingredients, our drive to go on, to thrive, to be happy is the one thing we share as a human family. And perhaps therein lies their biggest allure.

Many thanks to Emilia Lahti and Frank Martela for their time and insights. Emilia Lahti is a graduate from University of Pennsylvania's applied positive psychology master's program and is pioneering the research on the Finnish construct of sisu. She is passionate about creating positive social change through daily actions and working with individuals to guide them toward deeper sense of awareness, purpose and meaning. Frank Martela, PhD, is a philosopher and a researcher specializing in questions of motivation, caring, compassion, and meaning in life. 

References

Martela, Frank (2018). Finland is the happiest country in the world, and Finns aren't happy about it. Scientific American, May, 11.

Pantzar, Katja (2018). The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness through the Power of Sisu. Tarcher Perigee/Penguin Books.

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