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.

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.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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