What the Finnish concept of sisu, or inner strength, can teach us

This pandemic is really tough. But we have the inner strength to get through it. If you doubt that, look to Finland. They know how to prevail through hard times, and they have a word for it: sisu.

“Sisu is a word that has been around for hundreds of years, so it’s very integral to the Finnish vocabulary and the Finnish cultural vertebrae,” said Emilia Lahti, who has pioneered research into a concept that many Finns see as a core element of their cultural identity.

People have described sisu as grit or perseverance, but Lahti clarifies that it’s more about “extraordinary perseverance.” In other words, it’s about enduring in the face of extreme, or beyond ordinary, challenges.

Lahti should know. After surviving a violently abusive relationship, she says she wanted to learn more about sisu and was surprised that not one peer-reviewed study of the concept existed. She’s now completing her PhD dissertation on the subject at Helsinki’s Aalto University.

“Sisu is determination and courage in the face of great adversity,” said Lahti. “There is something in sisu that is more like when we feel that we’ve reached the end of our preconceived or assumed amount of energy and you discover a second wind or a spare power tank.”

Finland’s story of sisu

Finns credit their history and location for their sisu. Finland has been independent for only a hundred years, following centuries of rule by Sweden and later Russia. During War War II, Finland famously fought off the Soviet Union’s winter invasion.

“Finland, being sandwiched between Sweden and the Soviet Union/Russia, there’s a long history of having to endure and defend your existence,” explained Lahti. “And it also sounds obvious, but I would say weather.” A difficult climate, explains Lahti, influences a culture.

“The weather, the cold, the darkness, and we survive in spite of all that,” said Rauno Lahtinen, a cultural historian at Finland’s University of Turku, on the origins of the concept of sisu. “Originally it was about the idea that we had survived here in these circumstances, no matter what, and that’s why we have it.”

The key element is not so much that you survive in extreme conditions, but that those conditions demand more from you. Lahti said that when she was training for an ultra-marathon across the length of New Zealand, each time she ran in Finland’s cold rain or sleet, it was a deliberate choice or, as she put it, “a self-selected moment of adversity.”

Sisu is accepting and acting

Päivikki Koskinen agrees. Koskinen is a freelance journalist and TV reporter who works with Visit Finland on its Rent a Finn campaign, where you can spend time with someone from Finland to learn how they manage to rank as the happiest people on Earth.

“It’s really accepting what is,” said Koskinen. “Even if the weather is really bad, we are accepting it’s really bad but we are still doing what we are planning to do.” Koskinen cites her recent choice to swim in an ice-cold lake for a livestream. The event was planned, and Koskinen summoned sisu to get through it.

“It demands sisu to accept that yes, it’s not always nice, and I still do it. Be in the moment, accept it, and act,” said Koskienen, emphasizing that it’s the notion of taking action — even in the face of seeming obstacles — which sets sisu apart.

“I can do this, I can do what I promised and I want to do what I promised. I want to be trustworthy” is how Koskinen says Finns view their plans or obligations. “It’s commitment. Committing to the moment.” In fact, commitment is such a central tenet that Finland is the only country that paid all its debts to other nations following World War II.

Given its association with commitment and integrity, it’s no wonder that sisu is so highly regarded in Finland. “I think we use [the term ‘sisu’] almost daily. It feels really nice if someone says to me, ‘You really have sisu.’ It’s kind of like an honor to have it,” said Koskinen.

Sisu researcher Lahti echoes that idea, “In Finland sisu is very linked to qualities such as integrity, honor.” That’s also part of what sets sisu apart from, say, grit, a psychological concept that’s been much more widely researched.

“Sisu … gives us a chance to broaden the conversation about human endurance. It’s not just that we endure, that we extract that energy and we find it, but it’s the quality of how we are enduring,” said Lahti. “Is there virtue, is there gracefulness?”

“It’s almost like an unwritten rule that you seek to endure, you don’t complain about little things,” said Lahti.

We can all find sisu

Yet despite the fact that Finns see sisu as such a uniquely Finnish trait, Lahti believes it’s a strength that exists within all of us. “The capacity for sisu is in everyone, and we can cultivate the kind of environment where it’s more likely that someone will show sisu,” she said.

Lahti concedes that it may be easier for Finns to access their sisu because they are already aware that they have it, and that self-knowledge is the first step to finding it. “First of all, start with pausing and acknowledging that there is this indestructible, unbreakable life force. There is this strength within me,” said Lahti.

The next step builds on the first since it focuses on creating your own narrative about personal fortitude. “Secondly, recollecting moments — I would call them stories of sisu from our own life — maybe even doing a writing exercise, writing down one or two or three moments where we overcame something we thought we could not do.”

As Lahti notes, “It’s an assignment that can help us remember what we’ve overcome, and that we do really have this capacity. So far you have overcome 100 percent of all the adversities you have encountered. Just remember that.”

The third step involves acting on it. Lahti is careful to stress that situations that demand sisu are very individual. “There’s a million ways to be expanded by sisu. For someone it can be a very personal thing, like I need to be courageous and speak the truth in my relationship … For some it can be a physical thing, like exercise. If you’re someone who is depressed, an act of sisu could be to get up, take a shower, and go for a walk outside.”

Now is the time to build sisu

The key is that sisu comes from challenges. “‘What is a chance in my own life that will take me to the edge of my comfort?’” is a question Lahti said we should ask ourselves. “There’s a lot of life in the comfort zone and we need to be there as well, but growth begins at the end of that comfort zone.”

One reason that Finns feel so in tune with sisu, beyond the fact that they’ve grown up with the word, is that it’s an everyday part of life near the Arctic circle. Even in the bitterest winter weather, Finnish school kids are expected to go outside multiple times a day.

These difficult “micro-moments” as Lahti calls them, build up strength over time — toughness that we can transfer into a more demanding situation. “We get to choose to do an uncomfortable thing when it’s not too hard and then when something really happens and we’re invited to … respond way beyond what we thought we were capable of, there’s this phenomenon of transference.”

Right now, many of us find ourselves outside of our comfort zone. It’s a good time to find that inner strength.

“As a global community, we are together swimming in this lake of sisu, more or less right now,” said Lahti. She notes that some people may be suffering with loneliness or depression, while others are facing severe financial consequences from the pandemic.

“We get to recognize our strength, and it also comes with a lot of elevating, amazing stories … because it is such a human quality to overcome and endure,” said Lahti. She is confident we have the capacity to get through this because, she says, “To have sisu is to be human.”



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