Like the better-known terms hygge and niksen, the Finnish term “sisu” isn’t translatable. Loosely interpreted, the term stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done, regardless of what it takes. Sisu is a special strength and persistent determination and resolve to continue and overcome in the moment of adversity. It’s an almost magical quality, a combination of stamina, perseverance, courage and determination held in reserve for hard times. So, with our monthly theme on resilience, we thought this was the perfect time to explore sisu and how we can incorporate the concept into our daily lives.
image by Osamu Yokonami
Researcher and social activist Emilia Lahti describes sisu succinctly as a “way of life to actively transform the challenges that come our way into opportunities, and build a bridge toward our best possible future self.”
I think we can all admit that times are weird. And at some point in our lives, we’ll all experience that knee-buckling phone call or major shift in our world. We get through that time, somehow, by drawing on energy reserves we never knew we had and persevering, despite the exhaustion. There’s no word in English for the specific strength it takes to pull through, but there is a word in Finnish: sisu. It is hard to exhaustively describe sisu, but it denotes an internal, powerful force that moves you forward when you think you have reached your limit. Think of it like a spare tank of gas, its benefits are thanks to adversity, not in spite of it.
“It’s a way of life to actively transform the challenges that come our way into opportunities, and build a bridge toward our best possible future self.”
In Finland, sisu is very linked to qualities such as integrity and honor. That’s also part of what sets sisu apart from, say, grit or perseverance. Sisu is something to carry in our hearts to help us and give us the guts we need. So, it’s not a specific strategy, a Band-Aid or all-purpose medicine for tough times. The Finnish take this attitude as a philosophy of life. They see it as a psychological muscle to be exercised daily.
If you want to cultivate your sisu, Lahti recommends the following:
- Run long distances. It gives you a chance to practice pushing yourself.
- Reflect on your most sisu-filled times. Finding the evidence of your own ability to overcome long odds will embolden you the next time you need that strength.
- Think about historic examples of people going beyond their limits. It helps to show the real range of human possibility.
If you’re interested in learning more about sisu, there are some great books available: