- 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, Timewrote 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.