Over the past few years, I have fallen in love with the Finnish concept of sisu (pronounced see’-soo) and have made its practice part of my daily life.
A concept dating back to the 1500s, sisu means persistence, endurance, and grit. It is a defining national concept for Finland, whose history includes Swedish and Russian rule for long periods—a famine from 1867-68 and a Russian invasion in 1939.
Of course, the Finns need to get through their long bitter winter every year regardless of whatever else is happening.
While I am not of Finnish background, the concept of sisu suits the current state of the world and my current temperament. It seems to me that persistence and endurance are among the principal abilities we need in life.
During the pandemic, getting through each day was a chore. Actually, it still is. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another—and none of it is easy.
How do I get through the day or week or project? By breaking it down into small parts, starting with the most confrontable, and ending when I can’t stand it anymore. And I do a little more next time. It’s like building a muscle.
Make a game of it. Can you do a little more than you thought you could? Find out, then end off when you have reached your limit and return tomorrow.
For me, hiking is good practice for those times when I need to do the most important thing first, whether it is difficult or not. If I hike in, I have to hike out. No one is coming to pick me up in a car. Those last few miles out can feel endless, and I may need to take frequent breaks, but I haven’t failed to make it out yet.
These are some of the ways you can nurture your sisu. And it is comforting to feel fellowship with centuries of sisu-practicing Finns.
A key part of sisu is taking a break. Burnout helps no one. I may walk in the park or go for a swim. Fifteen minutes of deep breathing can clear the mind. I find a long walk in a nature preserve to be refreshing. Nature is physically and mentally relaxing and never fails me.
The Finns, though, have their sauna. For two-thousand years, they have incorporated regular breaks in their daily lives by use of the sauna. There are about 3.3 million saunas in Finland for 5.5 million people. Not only does the sauna warm you to the bone in the bitter Finnish winter, but it is physically and mentally relaxing. As you sit on the bench, throw a ladle of water on the hot stones, and feel the heat penetrate your body, time stops and tranquility washes over you. Ninety-nine percent of Finns sauna at least once a week. If you do not have access to a sauna, a steam room or a hot tub are both nice in winter.
There are other ways to increase sisu. Finnish-Canadian author Katja Pantzar suggests:
>> Cycle or walk instead of driving or taking public transport when possible.
>> Approach house cleaning like a mini-workout.
>> Try to repair or mend household items and clothes instead of automatically throwing them out.
>> Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
>> Bundle up and go outside no matter what the weather.
And don’t forget your kids, who will definitely need persistence and endurance as adults. To get them on the right path, Finnish author Joanna Nylund recommends:
>> Teach them not to give up at the first difficulty.
>> Help them enjoy themselves, even if they are uncomfortable. For example, they can go to the park in the rain wearing their rain gear, swim when the water is a little chilly, or take walks in the winter when it is cold outside.
>> Encourage a healthy work ethic. Ask them to complete simple household chores like cleaning their room, walking the dog, doing the dishes, or taking out the trash.
Finland topped the list of Happiest Countries in the World from 2018 to 2022 in the UN-sponsored World Happiness Report, and consistently places in the top 10, along with most Scandinavian countries.
These countries all feature a complete social safety net (including health care, education, childcare, and eldercare), a high level of social equality, and are ethnically homogeneous, so sisu is not the only factor at play. However, Finland is the only country that has made sisu a central concept.
This led me to wonder how cultivating sisu correlates with happiness.
According to Nylund, “Looking at what we Finns agree that sisu has bought us—freedom, independence, welfare, success—I would say that it does. What is happiness if not living the life you have chosen? And sisu gives us choice. It allows us to be overcomers.”