Sisu: how to embrace the Finnish concept of inner strength and determination when the world feels in crisis
Life

Sisu: how to embrace the Finnish concept of inner strength and determination when the world feels in crisis

Stylist explains how the Finnish concept of “sisu” could help us all deal with the overwhelm of modern life.

As the five-time consecutive happiest country in the world, it’s clear that there’s plenty we should be looking toward Finland for.

Not only is it consistently praised by international bodies for its extensive welfare benefits, low levels of corruption and well-functioning democracy, it’s renowned for its sense of no-nonsense mental resolve.

We’ve long been fascinated by concepts such as Norway’s koselig and friluftsliv and Denmark’s hygge to help us to bring some much-needed clarity and calmness into our lives.

At a time when it feels like everything is in crisis – the climate, the cost of living, the political system, women’s safety – it feels harder and harder to cling to the notion that everything will be OK in the end.

Two years of the pandemic left our mental reserves so drained that it’s been a hard slog to rebuild them, particularly as we battle the very real impact of life after lockdown.

Therefore, there seems no time more apt than the present to discover the Finnish concept of sisu.

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What is sisu?

Though the word is untranslatable, anglicised interpretations range from inner strength, determination, guts, courage and willpower.

In Sisu: The Finnish Art Of Courage, author Joanna Nylund explains that it can also imply “stoic determination, hardiness, bravery, tenacity and resilience”.

According to This Is Finland, etymologically, “sisu” comes from a Finnish root word that implies ‘inner’ or ‘inside’, explaining why it’s so often associated with internal motivation and discipline. As the New York Times termed it in 1940: “Sisu – a word that explains Finland.”

Put simply, it can be summed up as a sense of “stick-with-it-ness” in difficult times, something we are struggling with to some extent right now.

How to embrace sisu in your everyday life

While Finland was fighting a war in the brutal cold of winter when the concept was first picked up by The Times, in her book, Nylund says that the mindset can be applied to more common obstacles in every part of life.

Nylund goes on to explain that the key to embracing and exhibiting sisu lies in “an action-oriented mindset.” “You don’t brag about having sisu,” she writes, “you just let your actions do the talking.”

“It contributes to physical and mental wellbeing and helps you communicate with your partner, family members and colleagues. You can raise your kids to have sisu. You can use it as the basis for leading an active, healthy life; you can leverage it to progress toward your goals, and it might even help you find happiness.”

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According to the experts at Happiful, this also involves taking moments to show yourself some kindness. “Recall moments in your life when you embraced your inner strength. Overcome that critical inner voice by remembering past times when you exceeded your own expectations in order to get through,” they explain on their website.

Be it through mindfulness, journaling, therapy or meditation, this time for meaningful introspection can also be helpful to find and maintain this resilience.

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Just as taking time into nature or embracing comfort and cosiness is no magic cure to the pressures of modern life, sisu can’t and doesn’t promise to make your mental wellbeing infallible. 

“It is a special thing that is reserved for especially challenging moments. When we feel that we came to the end point of our preconceived capacities. You could say that sisu is energy – determination in the face of adversities that are more demanding than usual,” Emilia Lahti, a researcher of sisu from Aalto University in Helsinki, told the BBC in 2018.    

Instead, it’s a positive thinking framework for even the toughest times, a reminder that you have so much strength, value and resilience inside you, even when it doesn’t feel like it. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’s list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. In a crisis, call 999.

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