First there was hygge from Denmark, then came lagom from Sweden, but now the Finns are getting in on the act with their own wellbeing ethos – sisu. And they could be on to something, because Finland has just been named the happiest country in the world by the Happiness Research Institute.
Joanna Nylund, author of Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage, joined us as a guest on the latest In The Moment Magazine podcast to talk about her new book. You can play or download the podcast online or on Apple, Spotify and Stitcher.
What is sisu and what does it mean?
Sisu (pronounced see-soo) is sometimes described as ‘the Finnish grit’, but what does sisu mean in Finnish? It’s derived from the word sisus meaning ‘interior’ or ‘guts’, so the best translation to English is ‘gutsy’.
Joanna says: “Sisu is actually many things, but it’s basically a characteristic that we Finns take pride in as something quite Finnish. I would say that it’s a mix of different things, but it’s courage, it’s resilience, it’s tenacity, it’s grit and I think for me personally it’s a kind of cheerful determination.
“It’s a very positive quality in Finland. It’s something that we talk about a lot and it’s very desirable, something that people want to have. We want to cultivate it if we can. It’s an umbrella for all kinds of things.”
Joanna was inspired to write about sisu because there hasn’t been a book about the subject in 50 years, including in Finnish. “It’s funny, because we talk about it a lot,” she says. “It’s just something we take for granted really. I think with the advent of all these other Nordic books on hygge and how to live a happier and more balanced life with lagom it would be a great time to introduce sisu on a wider scale.”
Sisu is very much part of the Finnish national character and Joanna says it’s very difficult to understand the Finns without taking sisu into account. “But it’s not something that you would brag about, that you have great sisu. It’s very much part of the fabric of who we are.”
How can we benefit from sisu?
Joanna believes that people have a desire to develop an inner courage, so sisu has something to offer everyone, especially when facing difficult circumstance in your life.
“You might want to set a goal, you might want to exceed yourself or exceed your expectations of yourself,” she says. “You might want to run a marathon and sisu can come in in all of these situations where you’re challenging yourself and moving outside of your comfort zone.”
According to Joanna, there are lots of ways in which we can bring sisu into our lives: “You might want to communicate better or you might want to develop your resilience, for instance. I find that for me cultivating sisu is about trying to centre yourself. Trying to remove distractions from your life and that’s a problem that most of us are facing in the modern world.
“We’re so distracted by everything going on and we have our computers and mobiles and we’re constantly online. I think even that in itself can create a situation where you’re not in touch with who you are and how you’re feeling. You’re finding it difficult to focus and you find your thoughts scattering all over the place.”
How to find your inner sisu in nature
For Joanna, finding her inner sisu means getting out into the countryside. She looks for a quiet spot somewhere surrounded by nature and go into herself to check in on how she’s feeling. “How am I doing? What am I thinking and feeling today?”
She tries to trace those feelings and get to the bottom of what’s bothering her. “It’s a kind of mindfulness,” she says.
Joanna believes that spending time outdoors is a great way to introduce yourself to sisu without any distractions. “It’s daring to come face to face with yourself without any distractions.”
Sisu is, in many ways, the Finnish approach to mindfulness. “People practise mindfulness by going out into nature, because we have these vast forests and unpopulated areas and people love spending time out of doors.
“I don’t think that they’re consciously aware of the face that they’re being mindful, but that’s what we’re doing. I think we’re very spoiled in that sense, because most of us have nature around the corner. It’s quite easy to find that secluded spot, which I’m sure is harder in countries which are more urbanised.”
Finns also enjoy winter bathing and more extreme sports. “Doing something quite strenuous physically can also be a way of being mindful.”
Winter bathing, for the uninitiated, is a plunge into a frozen lake after a session in the sauna. “This is really invigorating,” says Joanna.
Like their Nordic neighbours, Finns are fans of spending time away from the modern world in a cabin without internet access. “We all long to withdraw from the city and live with nature just around the corner. And go for a swim first thing in the morning with no sound other than the birds chirping. That’s paradise on earth for Finns, I think.”
Sisu can applied to lots of different areas of your life. At work, sisu can help you communicate more directly and be more honest, laying your cards on the table.
Joanna says this applies best to negotiations and any situation where you’re dealing with conflict. “Britain is a very polite culture … In Finland, things are a bit more straightforward and more direct.”
You can bring this into play in a work setting by being more open about your concerns, for example in a staff meeting. “Of course, do it politely and with consideration,” Joanna advises. “But still speak your mind. Don’t just agree because it’s the polite thing to do if you have another opinion.”
How to be a sisu parent
The sisu way is to not avoid challenges in life and let your children make their own mistakes. Helicopter parents in modern society hover over children and protect them from all risks, but that’s not the sisu approach.
Finns try to prepare children for the challenges to come, but also encourage them to find their own inner strength and learn to be confident in themselves. They don’t try to remove every obstacle from the child’s path.
“Try to make them feel as prepared as they possible can for what’s coming, because no one can escape the challenges. And it’s best to learn to face that at an early age, of course in a safe environment where you feel that you have the protection and support that you need,” says Joanna.