Want to achieve your goals? The Finnish have a word for that.

Sisu is an ancient concept that is an integral part of Finland's national character.

man running an ultramarathon up a mountain
An ultra trailer walks past the Mont Blanc at La Flegere path on September 2, 2018 near Chamonix, as he competes during 170 km Mount Blanc Ultra Trail (UTMB) race around the Mont-Blanc, crossing France, Italy and Switzerland. (Photo by Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Sisu is an important Finnish concept that helps natives tap into an "unexplored inner strength."
  • Researcher Emilia Lahti surveyed over 1,000 Finnish citizens to discover what the term means to them.
  • Lahti discovered her own sisu when completing 50 ultramarathons in 50 consecutive days to fight domestic violence.

For the second straight year, Finland was named the happiest country in the world in an annual publication produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The report monitors GDP, social support, healthy life expectancy ratings, as well as freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.

While reasons for the winning streak are many, one Finnish researcher points to sisu as a motivating factor in dominating this intriguing blend of individual and social achievements. In a new study at Aalto University in Greater Helsinki, doctoral student Emilia Lahti searched through 1,000 replies from her country mates about the meaning of this important concept.

"Sisu is a Finnish word that goes back hundreds of years and a quality that Finns hold dear but the phenomenon itself is universal. Taking a close look at the concept reminds us that, as humans, not only are we all vulnerable in the face of adversity but we share unexplored inner strength that can be accessed in adverse times."

Lahti relates the concept to extraordinary perseverance, an almost "magic" ability to push beyond perceived limitations to accomplish challenging tasks, ranging from running an ultra-marathon to beating cancer believed to be fatal. While an English equivalent is considered imperfect, notions of grit, gutsiness, and resilience come to mind.

TED Talk – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow – 2004

This isn't the first time sisu has made its way into American consciousness. In 1940, Time wrote about it, calling it a "compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win." Relating wartime events in Finland to an American public, Time included the concept in coverage again in 1943 and 1952.

In June 2013, the 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology included the concept of sisu for the first time, inviting Lahti to speak on the topic in Los Angeles. During the conference she noted that an "action mindset" is necessary; bravery without follow-through renders you impotent. Pushing through unbearable hardships has helped the Finnish collectively in overcoming invaders, yet it also helps individuals deal with emotional and physical issues.

The manifestation of sisu isn't about passion, though it can be involved at times. In fact, it might rely on the opposite, at least in the American sense of the term. You don't necessarily need to love the challenge in front of you—accomplishing seemingly outlandish goals is more perspiration than inspiration, as the sentiment goes—but you do need to pursue it with all of your being. This is where those embodying sisu thrive.

In describing this concept, I'm tempted to invoke flow, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of the highly focused mental states that distorts time and aids you in pushing past perceived boundaries. Yet the specificity of the neurochemical event might be too narrow to properly capture sisu. Flow states are actual events; sisu seems to be more the drive behind each event on your mission.

Perjantai-documentary: Emilia - Sisu not Silence

Another potential comparison is the placebo effect, an incredible yet often dismissed (or poorly understood) phenomenon. Humans achieve incredible feats simply through belief; it's how, for example, homeopathic "medicine" works (since no active ingredient is present). That our brains could stimulate our immune system to heal our body due to a belief that we're healing our body is one area of science that is desperately under-researched, yet it perfectly shows the intrinsic power of directed thought.

Sisu likely operates under such principles: the focused mind achieving the impossible. Magic need not apply. A conspiracy of forces working in your favor guided by the power of belief. In a world in which so many people talk about the power of thinking, it's incredible that we don't have enough faith in ourselves to actually believe it to be true—magic and metaphysics are convenient excuses for not facing the innate power of biology.

Lahti doesn't dwell on metaphysics; she relates sisu to having a "spare tank of gas." Benefits are derived from the adversity itself. Pushing beyond perceived limitations reminds me of American investor John Doerr's suggestion in Measure What Matters: "If you seek to achieve greatness, stretching for amazing is a great place to start."

Yet Doerr, an early investor in and advisor to Google, doesn't stop there. Quoting his old boss at Intel, Andy Grove, the first stretch is, well, only the first:

"In our business, we have to set ourselves uncomfortably tough objectives, and then we have to meet them. And then after ten milliseconds of congratulations we have to set ourselves another [set of] highly difficult-to-reach objects and we have to meet them. And the reward of having met one of these challenging goals is that you get to play again."

For Lahti, the concept is personal. As the video above documents, her goal of running 50 ultra-marathons in 50 days across New Zealand to speak out against domestic violence is certainly an inhuman goal—one she needed plenty of sisu to accomplish. Accomplish it she did, powered by her cultural legacy of sisu.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

These are the world’s greatest threats in 2021

We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.

Luis Ascui/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.

Keep reading Show less

Columbia study finds new way to extract energy from black holes

A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Surprising Science
  • In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
  • A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
  • The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

A psychiatric diagnosis can be more than an unkind ‘label’

A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast