Most modern women live by the Finnish philosophy of sisu without even realising it – but that doesn’t mean that we should.
Throughout history, humans have been curious about how people live in other parts of the world. But in recent years, our fascination with foreign lifestyle philosophies – specifically, those that can be summed up by one mysterious word with no direct translation – has reached fever pitch. We all remember the Great Hygge Rush of 2016, when the UK collectively lost its mind over the Danish concept of cosiness and bought a borderline-obscene amount of fake sheepskin throws and cinnamon-scented candles.
Since then, we’ve tried to live according to lagom (the Swedish philosophy of living in moderation); coorie (a traditional Scottish mindset of embracing simple pleasures like country walks); and ikigai, a Japanese concept that roughly translates to acting with purpose.
It’s not hard to understand why these foreign lifestyle ‘trends’ (which usually aren’t trends in their home countries, but rather deep-rooted, extremely traditional ways of being) are so appealing. We all like to believe that a magic bullet exists that could help us feel happier, healthier, more relaxed and productive.
Combine that with the rose-tinted stereotypes we like to believe about life in other countries – French women are all effortlessly chic, the Danes are exclusively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – and it’s hardly surprising we latch onto these concepts like limpets on a rock.
But sometimes, a foreign lifestyle philosophy emerges that isn’t entirely positive. That doesn’t make it bad; in fact, it reminds us that relocating to another country won’t necessarily make life any less complex and challenging. The Brazilian term saudade, for example, refers to the feeling of melancholy nostalgia for a happiness you once had.
And earlier this week, I stumbled across a study exploring the Finnish concept of sisu. Unexpectedly, I realised that I’d inadvertently been living according to sisu for years – and it hasn’t always served me well.
Sisu is widely perceived as an essential part of ‘Finnishness’ (in 1940, during World War 2, The New York Times even described it as “the word that explains Finland”). But it has traditionally proved elusive and difficult to define – so researchers at Aalto University in Helsinki wanted to break it down into clear characteristics.
To do this, doctoral student Emilia Lahti analysed more than 1,000 responses from Finns and others knowledgeable about sisu about what the concept really means. Overall, the study – which was published recently in the International Journal of Wellbeing – concludes that sisu is an internal, underlying force that allows you to keep going even when you think you’ve reached your limits. She describes it as almost being like a spare tank of petrol – one that allows you to surpass expectations because of adversity, not in spite of it.
Many of the participants in Lahti’s research defined sisu as a form of “extraordinary perseverance”: the ability to push past preconceived mental or physical limitations by drawing on energy reserves they didn’t know they had. Others described it as consistently and courageously enduring against the odds.
Some respondents saw sisu almost as a kind of magic power, one that helped them move through extreme challenges – whether that challenge was one they opted into, such as a marathon, or one they had to face against their will, like an illness.
OK, hands up: who thinks that they might have embraced sisu a long time ago without even realising it? Because it might be a distinctly Finnish quality, but it sounds startlingly familiar to me. Most women, I think, will relate to that feeling of digging deep in order to access previously untapped energy resources; of pushing through the psychological pain barrier in order to simply do everything that needs to get done.
That day when you made it to a 6am gym class, dealt with three full-blown work crises, stayed in the office until 8pm to meet a major deadline, dashed to your sibling’s birthday drinks, put a load of laundry on when you got home, then got up the next morning to do it all again? That’s sisu (OK, I haven’t technically confirmed this with the Finnish researchers, but I’m calling it). That day you felt ill and exhausted but still managed to get your children to school on time, deliver a killer presentation at work, and meet your heartbroken best friend for a consoling dinner, even though you just wanted to sleep? Sisu. That time you had to organise the catering for a funeral, and deliver the eulogy, and you weren’t sure if you’d even be able to walk you were so grief-stricken, but you got through it? Sisu, my friend. Sisu.
Of course, sisu isn’t always a good thing. It’s admirable to be able to keep on trucking when times get tough, but it’s also vital that we’re sometimes able to stop – whether that means practising the art of saying no, asking for an extension on a deadline, or simply having a good cry. We live at a time that glorifies the ability to work harder for longer (the entrepreneur Elon Musk, for example, is valorised for dedicating his life to his work, as was Elizabeth Holmes before she was exposed as a fraud), but Lahti’s research suggests we should only embrace sisu in moderation.
Too much sisu can lead to burnout, exhaustion and disconnection, while people who take sisu too far may start to impose their demanding standards on others, becoming hard-hearted and harsh in the process. Lahti herself acknowledges that “sisu can be constructive or it can be destructive”. As one respondent to her study wrote: “[Too much sisu leads 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.”
Ultimately, the concept of sisu is neither inherently good nor bad, but rather a tool we should learn to master.
“We need sisu, but we also need things like benevolence, compassion and honesty with ourselves,” says Lahti. “The study is basically an invitation to talk about balance.”
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