Have you ever seen the Finnish word, “sisu,” [SEE-soo] and wondered what it meant? Sisu is at the root of the culture of Finland. It’s also a concept that can be hard to define. Writer Katja Pantzar moved to Finland, before writing her book The Finnish Way. She immersed herself into Finnish culture and found herself transformed. Her personal journey to finding inner strength began with an article in the New Yorker where she read the name, Emilia Lahti, who is one of Finland’s foremost researchers of sisu and human happiness.
Pantzar quotes Lahti’s definition of sisu, “…as relating to mental toughness and the ability to endure significant stress, while taking action against seemingly impossible odds: “In its native country, sisu is a way of life, a philosophy which has impacted the lives of generations of people.” She explains that the word literally means ‘guts.’ “Sisus un Finnish is something inside.” She goes on to quote the composer Sibelius: “Sisu is like a metaphorical shot in the arm that allows the individual to do what’s impossible.””
Cold and Hot
The word “impossible” is used in a lot of definitions of sisu. It makes sense, many people would think living as far north as some parts of Finland are, would be impossible. But with resilience and ingenuity, residents of Finland do quite well navigating subzero temperatures, nearly 24 hours of darkness, and mounds of snow for six months out of the year. The Finnish public speaker and entrepreneur, André Noël Chaker defined sisu in 2014 as, “Icy cold determination that makes you do the impossible.”
There’s something about the cold as well. It fortifies and inspires, instead of impedes, the Finns. It provides a clarity and a filter for the unnecessary. The sauna, a thousands of years old cultural tradition, represents a time and place to recharge. The heat reinvigorates as a compliment and contrast to the cold. Today there are 3.3 million saunas in Finland, and 5.5 million residents which show how valued they are.
Sisu comes from the word sisucunda, defined in The Finnish Way as, “The place in the body where strong emotions originate.” Lahti said, “When people talk about sisu and they’re trying to describe it, they point to their gut, like it’s literally in there – not to their hearts or minds. The clue is in the word sisus, which [in Finnish] is literally the interior, or inside of a thing or a being. Then it hit me that sisu is like the somatic embodiment of mental toughness.” Many Finns believe physical health to be a serious contributing factor to happiness. And the mind-body connection is a critical piece of sisu.
Strength can emerge from our muscles but also from our minds, and can help us all overcome obstacles. Even something as commonplace as a long gray winter. Lathi points out that, “The importance of being in situations that test us and allow us to see what we’re capable of” as a facet of how sisu is found from within.
Information from this post came from Sisu: Find Your Resilience the Finnish Way by Justyn Barnes
and The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu by Katja Pantzar
You can find local sauna experiences in the Twin Cities and in Duluth, a city with a rich history of Finnish immigration and sauna culture.