It may not be obvious from my name, but I am partly Nordic. I carry the rounded face and petite stature of the partial Finn I am. Sometimes I think about my maternal line and the land of a thousand lakes – a country I’ve never been to. A country renowned for so many good things – the happiest country in the world; the most stable, freest, safest and best country for human wellbeing. Finland has the cleanest air in the world, one of the top education systems and is the third most gender equal country. Not to mention, Finland is the most literate country in the world (with the second biggest library users) and has the fourth best press freedom in the world. The continuous success of this small country at the top of the world seems a little inconceivable, but makes sense when you understand the Finnish culture, values and their emphasis on wellbeing, simplicity and strength.
I recently read Katja Pantzar’s book ‘Finding Sisu: in search of courage, strength and happiness the Finnish Way’ at the recommendation of my colleague and friend Sharon (thanks, Sharon!). Sisu, (pronounced see-su) is a mentality that has meant a lot to me for a while now. There is no direct English translation for the word. In what may have been the first use of sisu in the English language, on 8 January 1940, Time magazine reported:
The Finns have something they call sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate sisu as “the Finnish spirit” but it is a much more gutful word than that. Last week the Finns gave the world a good example of sisu by carrying the war into Russian territory on one front while on another they withstood merciless attacks by a reinforced Russian Army. In the wilderness that forms most of the Russo-Finnish frontier between Lake Laatokka and the Arctic Ocean, the Finns definitely gained the upper hand.
Sisu has also been described as stoic determination, tenacity, grit, perseverance, bravery, resilience and hardiness. Perseverance and resilience are commonly linked to Sisu but in truth they are quite different. Perseverance is linked to the idea of not giving up on a long-term goal, where resilience is linked to the idea of recovering or bouncing-back to the way things were. Sisu, on the other hand is more of a short-termed feeling where you go beyond your limits, whether mental, physical or emotional, especially in the face of adversity or a stressful moment. It is not about recovery but about growth. Sisu has accompanied me a lot in my life, as it would all of you. In fact, I find myself, cultivating my Sisu even more amidst this pandemic.
Sisu, coincidentally has a lot to do with wellbeing – both physically and mentally. Katja gives the following advice to finding and nurturing your Sisu, all of which I have been trying to do better in order to find my courage, strength and happiness during these tough times.
Look for opportunities to do incidental exercise and view movement as medicine
Part of sisu mentality is looking for moments of incidental exercise, rather that the boxed idea that exercise = gym. So, what does ‘incidental exercise’ mean? It means…cleaning! Or getting off a bus and walking the last stop. Or taking the stairs rather than a lift (if you can). I’m someone who has always walked to the shops if I can and have often parked furthest away at work, so I have to walk further. Although I have to admit I’ve got to work on cultivating my enjoyment for household chores. Applying sisu means not choosing the easier and more comfortable way, because you know there is a benefit in going for the harder one.
The Finns view movement as medicine, with many doctors in Finland prescribing better exercise over pills. Professor Vouri states “use any opportunity, even if it’s a short time and features light movement. Don’t try to come up with ways to avoid daily movement and activity at home, work, commuting to work or free time.” Movement, even a little bit, can make a huge difference. I’ve come to realise that I even though I enjoy purposeful exercise, I don’t need to embark on a hardcore fitness regime to improve my overall fitness and wellbeing. Everyday, I can make a few easy, simple incidental choice that are still beneficial.
Spend time in nature (in any weather)
A big part of cultivating Sisu is actively seeking a heightened sense of wellbeing, and this can be achieved through spending time in nature. Sharon, in her book review, stated “Like the Japanese, the Finns have a strong relationship with forest environments and the benefits of forest bathing. In Finland there is no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing, so no matter what your age you should get out there in nature, rain or snow and enjoy the benefits it brings.” I’m a crazy walker. I love walking outside, especially amongst nature and even in the rain. I walk to the shops, I walk to and from work, I walk for almost an hour on my lunch breaks through the Japanese Gardens, and I walk to the park when I get home. I love spending time among nature and enjoy bush walks, though I admit I don’t do it nearly often enough.
Use saunas and swim in icy waters
Finns are famous for saunas and ice swimming. In her book, Katja acknowledges that ice swimming has changed her life. She states “I start to consider the sea my pharmacy, for it seems that a great many pains and problems get left in the water…my cold dips provide a natural remedy for many ailments, from tiredness and stress, and depression, to neck and muscle tension,” (p70). Although we lack ice seas and lakes in Australia, just spending 30 seconds standing under cold water in the shower can provide similar health benefits.
Saunas also provide health benefits, as like ice swimming, it forces people to be present in the moment. I’m really lucky that my grandparents have a sauna at their house and love using it, especially in winter.
Eat simply and sensibly
A healthy diet has been proven to be essential for physical and mental wellbeing. The Nordic diet is simple and sensible – a normal plate usually consists of ½ vegetables, ¼ rice or pasta and ¼ meat. Finns tend to eat organic fruit and vegetables, often picking their own berries and mushrooms in the forests. During this quarantine I’ve been experimenting more with simple and sensible cooking, and within the past week have had solely vegetarian meals for dinner, such as crunchy falafel plates with apple slaw and white bean dip, and egg drop noodle soup, and roasted pumpkin and cauliflower salad with pistachios and yoghurt sauce. I’ve been really enjoying cooking and eating healthier meals!
Choose simplicity and minimalism
Many Finns are design thinkers (after all they are the designers of Marimekko). They think seriously about design, consumption and the environment. Consider your consumption – where will this item go when I’m done with it? Can it be re-sold? Or donated? Is second-hand shopping an option (Finns are mad op shoppers). Katja recommends investing in a few well-made items that will last longer than many poor-quality ones that will just likely end up in the garbage. She also encourages us to tap into sisu and make the effort to design a more functional lifestyle where possible: would less stuff or a smaller living space address quality of life issues such as reducing budget or maintenance costs?
Take small steps to achieve your goals
It’s easy to get put off achieving your goal thinking that you need to get from 0 to full success in a day or so. Trust me, this is hardly ever possible. Also, it is now a proven idea that if you take smaller steps to achieve your goal, you are more likely to get where you want to be. Katja, the author, explains that you need to give yourself time. Whether it’s introducing taking a dip in cold water every day, or switching to a sweet-free diet, you need to allow the time for the new thing to become part of your life.
Most importantly, you need to persevere. This is how you build your resilience to obstacles.
And this is the fundamental principle of sisu.
Getz, S. (2020). The Finnish secret to life – Sisu. https://gumtreesandgalaxies.com/2020/03/16/the-finnish-secret-to-life-sisu/
Pantzar, K. (2018). Finding Sisu: in search of courage, strength and happiness the Finnish way. Hodder & Stoughton.
Time Magazine (1940). NORTHERN THEATRE: Sisu.