Words Make our Worlds: Introducing Sisu

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Synopsis

What comes after perseverance? After you’ve reached your limits, exhausted all of your resources and there doesn’t seem to be anything left to tap into? The ability to wield courage in the face of adversity and stay hopeful amidst impossible circumstances has always been crucial for the survival of our species. How we respond to adversity has a significant impact on our well-being, so it makes sense that a deeper understanding of the determinants of resilience is not just ‘good for us’, but is an actual necessity.

The late 19th-century psychologist, philosopher, and intellectual prodigy, William James (1914),  pointed out that we don’t know enough about the human ‘spirit’ and suggested that we must strive toward a detailed 'topography of human strength. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said that “the limits of my words means the limits of my world.” Indeed, only with precise constructs to describe the world and its phenomena (as well as our internal mental realm) can we strive to explain it and therefore, to understand more and to be more. Adversities are an unavoidable aspect of life. A deep, nuanced understanding of the human potential to overcome such struggles is one of the most important chapters in the guide to a successful and flourishing life. This is one of my main prerogatives for introducing sisu into academic research within positive psychology and supporting its mainstream discourse beyond Finland.

Sisu is a 500-year old Finnish construct, 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. So far the construct has mainly been a well-kept secret of the Finns, but I believe there are benefits to introducing it into the broader discourse. Here’s what the late researcher and psychologist, Dr. Chris Peterson, wrote about the Japanese term ikigai (translated as believing that one’s life is worth living):

”There are lessons to be learned in all cultures about what makes life worth living, and no language has a monopoly on the vocabulary for describing the good life. The notion of ikigai is a good reminder to positive psychologists in the United States that our science should not simply be western export.”

Wielding ‘sisu’ is nothing new to you if you have endured adversity in your life, or said yes to huge challenges, but you might not have had a word for it. I believe the word is a perfect example of the many untapped cultural constructs that are waiting to be unlocked. Expanding our vocabulary and understanding regarding a phenomenon that is so integral to all human experience (overcoming adversity and enduring hardships) may prove indispensable during the formidable obstacles that we inevitably encounter at some point in life.

The (Icy) Launch Pad for Sisu 2.0

The genesis of my interest in sisu was perhaps invoked by growing up in Finland and surviving harsh winters while being told to “sisu it up” (and so we did). My later fascination with sisu is the result of a personal trauma which altered the trajectory of my entire life. As so often with the meaningful beginnings in our lives, there was also a hefty dose of serendipity. In 2012, while visiting the UPenn campus, I happened to stumble upon Dr. Angela Duckworth’s undergraduate course on positive psychology, where she spoke about grit (i.e. passion and perseverance for a long term goal). Right away I became interested to see how these two similar sounding constructs of grit and might relate to each other.

Ultimately, my exploration of sisu began from a lack of academic research about it. Despite my efforts, and the fact that sisu is a core element of Finnishness (it is even said that one cannot understand Finns without understanding the meaning of sisu), I only found a handful of research articles, none of them really focusing on sisu itself but it’s meaning in relation to something else. I was not able to find an answer as to the most simple questions such as whether sisu is some kind of an inherent character trait that one is simply born with (there has even been debate whether only Finns have sisu), a tendency that one can develop over time, or whether it’s perhaps merely a myth. Every Finn and their grandmother was eager to describe their version of what sisu is, but there didn’t seem to be much consensus about its core composition. Sisu had been mainly researched as cultural construct relating to Finnish identity or as part of the historical examination of Finland, but as a psychological capacity, it had remained under-researched and poorly defined. In past research literature and popular writings, sisu has often been referred to as “untranslatable” or even a “superhuman nerve force.”

Einstein once said, “What we cannot describe simply, we don’t really understand.” As a result of the dead-end I reached with the existing research, I felt a deep inner imperative to examine sisu and encourage a fuller understanding of it within both Finnish and global discourse. In 2013, I set out to explore sisu for its own sake, thus seeking to describe it in a more accessible way and to bring it within reach of people outside Finland.

Swimming in the Deep End

I initially researched sisu as part of my master’s thesis at UPenn, under Angela’s mentorship. I crafted an on-line survey consisting of 23 questions to map the cultural representations of sisu among contemporary Finns and Finnish Americans. The unexpectedly large number of respondents (totaling over 1,000) was an encouraging affirmation of public interest in the subject.


Within Finnish media and mainstream discourse, sisu is occasionally described as persistence and the ability to pursue a long-term goal. This would make sisu pretty much same as perseverance or grit. I was curious to see whether sisu renders itself somehow different from other similar constructs and therefore, adds value to contemporary psychological dialogue (i.e., beyond being merely an examination of a cultural construct). In the following, I share with you some of the main findings.

Overall, the most commonly held view of sisu, and one of the most important findings of the survey, is that sisu is a psychological strength capacity enabling individuals to power on when they feel they have reached the limits of their perceived mental or physical capacities (62%). This is as opposed to it denoting the ability to stay persistent and stick to a task for long time periods (34%) (N= 1,060, p < .05). Even though sisu can sometimes refer to the duration of the chosen activity (how long a person is able to keep on trying), it's unique quality is about taking action against the odds and exceeding oneself; going on when there seems to be no way out, and the individual is running on empty.

The large majority of the respondents believed one’s potential to display sisu is something they are born with. Despite this, an even higher percentage (83%) believed that regardless of how little sisu one is 'born with', they have the power to cultivate and develop it during their lifetime. This finding is meaningful in the light of Dr. Carol Dweck's (2002) seminal research on mindsets, and the idea that our beliefs are often the biggest indicator of our future actions. Our beliefs can indeed be seen to define the space within which we function in our daily lives. They create expectancy, propel action and bridge the way toward our future.

Sisu does not have a direct translation in any language, nor does it have any precise synonyms (the Japanese construct of ganbaru may perhaps be one of its closest equivalents). Based on the data analysis and literature review, I describe ‘sisu’ as part of a broader phenomenon relating to a set of psychological key competencies which enable action to overcome a mentally or physically challenging situation. Sisu is the second wind of mental stamina.

The Topography of Extraordinary Strength

To describe the difference between sisu and other constructs which denote tenacity but relate more to the duration of the task, one could say that ‘sisu’ begins where perseverance and grit end. It is the ‘second wind’ of mental toughness after the individual has reached the end of their observed mental or physical capacity. I propose and hypothesize that sisu may act as a pathway to resilience (resilience seen as a process, not as a trait), enabling a positive response to an adverse situation. More on the topic here.

It could be related to what I would describe an action mindset; a consistent, courageous approach toward challenges which at first seem to exceed our capacities. It is about actively reaching beyond our perceived limits, and stretching the existing boundaries of our psychological strength. We don´t know how strong or capable we truly are before we are at the proverbial edge, and push beyond it.

In a way, going beyond what we initially perceive as the limits of our perceived abilities can be seen as the ultimate pinnacle of what keeps life going. This not only applies to surviving and the benefits of the powerful phenomena known as 'post-traumatic growth', it also contributes to the advancement of modern society. We develop and evolve through somehow seeing into what 'might be', courageously stepping into the unknown, turning barriers into frontiers, and therefore transcending the limits of our present knowledge.

Demonstrating the importance of an action mindset is pretty easy. You can do so by recalling events in your life where you overcame what you previously thought were impossible mental or physical barriers (or think about someone else’s life — e.g. Nelson Mandela or Marie Curie, if you will). What if you had quit before seeing what you can achieve, or if you never took the chance to try? Being courageous, gritty or having sisu is not just a mystical quality of character, but is very tangible because it manifests itself through our actions (or conversely our inability to take action), therefore shaping the course our lives. Comparing the state of our lives post-sisu with the alternative reality which would have otherwise occurred shows us the necessity of having an action mindset.

Sisu Should be Informed by Reason

While discussing human behavior and psychology, it is important to bear in mind that we are dealing with multifaceted phenomena, which should not be merely reduced to their most prominent characteristics. In the case of mental toughness, yes, you need to power on and be tough but you will also need to be able to let go and be soft. In fact, sometimes it may take more sisu to turn away and quit than to keep on going. Too much sisu can lead to stubbornness, which may blind us from the precious input from our environment. Even the lines between different qualities are often very blurry. Of sisu and grit, for example, I would say that they are different in certain key qualities, but are still more similar than they are different.

Furthermore, on a more practical note, our sisu, determination and courage work best when they are informed by reason, which in turn must be grounded in the open and objective observation of our environment. Without such a compass, we are prone to exhaust ourselves to the point of breakdown, or we may even end up going backward. Humans are not machines; we are a paradoxical hybrid of strong yet delicate systems. True mental toughness is grounded in self-compassion (something that at first may seem like the polar opposite of sisu), and true courage stems from vulnerability.

Wisdom seems buried somewhere within the fibers of things that seem mundane or obvious, as well as in the puzzling space between two opposites, and in our ability to tolerate the discomfort of this cognitive dissonance. Knowledge is obscured within the subplots of our main narratives. Furthermore, compared to the age of our Universe, we humans are like mere infants on our journey to understand the nature of consciousness and existence; we are still in the cradle of the cosmos.

It is likely that we will never have a definitive formula for cultivating grit, sisu or willpower (even though every institution, teacher, and trainer keeps searching for such a recipe and some even claim to have one). However, as long as we continue to love the questions and keep traveling with our heart full of hope (despite the occasional futility of our mission), we are bound to be on a worthy journey.

Into the Future

Besides being a brief introduction to a new cultural construct, this article is an invitation to expand the limits of our thinking, and therefore, our collective human experience, one new idea at a time. Through the introduction of new ideas, we bring previously invisible worlds into our periphery, much like climbing on top of a mountain to gaze over the landscape, and we give ourselves and others something to aim at in the dark. Where there used to perhaps be a void, we have a target for our curious arrows.

Introducing sisu is about shining a light in a previously dim corner of our understanding. It is about empowering people with the idea that there is a strength within us that is greater than the adversities we endure. After the initial stage of clarifying the construct itself, the future research on sisu will focus on exploring it in various contexts from education and individual empowerment to social change, especially within the framework of helping survivors of various types of trauma. The purpose of this work is to lead to empowering solutions that alleviate human suffering and increase well-being on a global scale. The usefulness of this work will be ultimately evaluated through what comes next, and through the practical value I’m hoping it will yield in people’s lives in the years to come.

Only through having the words and constructs to describe the world and the phenomena around us can we strive to explain it, and therefore, to understand more and to be more. One of the main prerogatives of the work on sisu is to expand our language and thinking and to thus transform the ways in which we perceive our opportunities.

If this piqued your interest, you can find more information by checking out the Sisu Lab, or visiting my website. There’s also this TEDx talk I gave. Let’s keep on going forward but while doing so, make sure our 'sisu' and determination are geared toward endeavors that create a more positive human future for all life on Earth.

We have done well. We can do better — one micro-action at a time.

© 2016 Emilia Lahti

References:

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087

Dweck, C. S. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (p. 37-60). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

James, W. (1914). The energies of men. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company.

Lahti, E. (2013). Above and Beyond Perseverance: An Exploration of Sisu. [Master’s Thesis] University of Pennsylvania.

Lahti, E. (2014). Sisu: Transforming Barriers into Frontiers at TEDxTurku

Article Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Nicholas Swanson at Unsplashed

Tags: action mindset, adversity, angela duckworth, emilia lahti, grit, positive psychology, resilience, sisu

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