If you ask a Finnish person what it means to be a Finn, the word “sisu” is likely to come up. The concept essentially refers to a well of inner strength that can only be accessed in difficult times. In 1940, during World War II, The New York Times declared sisu to be “the word that explains Finland.”
In a new study, doctoral student Emilia Lahti from Aalto University, near the Finnish capital of Helsinki, wanted to better understand what sisu means in the modern world.
“Sisu is a Finnish word that goes back hundreds of years and a quality that Finns hold dear but the phenomenon itself is universal,” said Lahti. “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 analyzed more than 1,000 responses from Finns and others knowledgeable about sisu on what the concept means — as well as whether it is inherently a good thing.
Overall, sisu was referred to as a trait of extraordinary perseverance; in other words, an individual’s ability to surpass preconceived limitations, either mentally or physically, by accessing stored-up energy reserves.
Sisu was also described as a consistent courageous approach to taking action against slim odds. In some cases, it appeared to the respondents almost like a “magic” source of power that can help people pull through tremendous challenges, whether it’s a self-selected struggle such as running a long marathon or an unexpected event like a health crisis.
It is hard to exhaustively describe sisu but, according to the findings, it refers to an internal, latent force that moves you forward when you think you have reached your limit. It is almost like a spare tank of gas, Lahti said; its benefits are thanks to adversity, not in spite of it. Sisu is not always, however, for the better.
“Sisu will help us take the next step — or the first one — but the outcome of that action will depend on how we use it. In that sense, sisu can be constructive or it can be destructive,” said Lahti.
For example, according to the responses, too much sisu can result in burnout, exhaustion, disconnection and even create an attitude of mercilessness as a person imposes his or her own harsh standards on others. Overall, it seems that sisu is neither good nor bad, but a tool one must learn to master.
While the public, in general, tends to glorify mental strength and perpetuates a “faster, higher and stronger” mentality, the answers in the data displayed an alternative view.
As one respondent wrote, too much sisu may lead to “denying the realities of life, as well as the limits of human strength, therefore denying the very core of our humanity in ourselves and others.”
Lahti sees the results as an opportunity to engage in a broader societal conversation on how we might improve the quality of human life through greater self-understanding that includes the sisu concept.
“Finland is an interesting case,” she says. “We’ve again been named world’s happiest country and in global terms we have an excellent social welfare system, but at the same time we are a country that also struggles with things like suicide, depression and domestic violence.”
With global conversations on burnout and the tolls of modern life, understanding the extent and limits of human strength through cultural examples, such as Finland, can contribute to a road map toward a more harmonious way of living.
“We need sisu, but we also need things like benevolence, compassion and honesty with ourselves,” Lahti said. “The study is basically an invitation to talk about balance.”
Source: Aalto University