WHAT IS SISU?
Sisu Begins Where Perseverance Ends
Adversities are an integral part of human experience, but what is it that enables us to endure the toughest of situations and take action against nearly impossible odds? What keeps us going when we feel we have reached the end of our preconceived mental or physical reserves?
The small Nordic country of Finland has a cultural construct known as sisu, used to describe the enigmatic power that enables individuals to push through significant hardships. The term dates back hundreds of years. However, the idea of sisu is much older. It is a central part of Finnish collective discourse and can be seen as a life philosophy in its native country. Sisu is extraordinary courage and determination in the face of adversity. It can be about not seeing a silver lining in the clouds and jumping into the storm anyway. At the core of sisu is the idea that in each of us there is more strength than meets the eye. Even though the construct of sisu has its roots in Finland, it is relevant to all human beings everywhere in the world. It is a potential that we all share and which can have a powerful impact on our daily lives. Sisu is embodied by people everywhere who defy the odds and hold on to hope when there at first seems to be none.
In my research paper published at the International Journal of Wellbeing in 2019 (based on data collected in 2013), I present that the most prominent part of sisu is the ability to surpass one’s preconceived limitations by accessing stored-up energy reserves. Sisu is invoked by adversity and is more about finding energy in the moment than about long-term endurance, goal-setting, and achievement. Instead of being about conscious willing or mental fortitude, sisu implies a strength that is more likely to be about the visceral and somatic dimension of human endurance. I propose that sisu points to a universal phenomenon of latent energy in humans everywhere, lends it a name, and contributes toward a more culturally rich conversation on the human experience of overcoming adversity across life challenges.
Too much sisu, however, can lead to unhealthy stubbornness, disconnection, and other potentially harmful outcomes. Sisu can therefore be either self-defeating or self-enhancing and understanding the conditions for both outcomes is crucial if one wishes to explore how sisu may be developed on an individual and collective level. A culture that glorifies and worships mental toughness, sisu, and achievement at the expense of virtues such as justice, benevolence, and integrity, puts itself on a dangerous path towards a world that demands winners and disregards those who can’t or choose not to fit this mold. Sisu is that way also an invitation to discuss what kind of values we actually old high and what kind of a society we wish to cultivate on the long run.
Adopting an Action Mindset
Sisu as a psychological capacity refers to extraordinary determination in the face of extreme stress or adversity. It also seems to contribute to something that I have named the action mindset: a consistent, courageous approach toward challenges which at first seem to exceed our capabilities.
If we dare to reach beyond our present situation, we start to act and move toward our goals, pushing past our barriers. These barriers might be fear, uncertainty, physical pain or lack of trust in oneself, among many other such limits. As we step past this boundary, we redefine it as a frontier – what could have been the end has become the beginning. In this way, action mindset can serve as a hugely empowering tool with the potential to create massive change in the lives of individuals and entire communities.
An action mindset contributes to how we approach problems. One could describe it as akin to signing up for a marathon or an Ironman before knowing that you can actually complete it. It provides a daring ´leap before you look´ attitude, so we are not paralyzed by the idea of every possible thing that might go wrong.
Why does this matter?
All of the major developments of modern civilization have depended on a person or group of people’s ability to prospect possible futures, and to be bold enough to dream and go where no one has gone before. It is about taking a leap of faith, and trusting that when the moment comes we are able keep up the practice, stand behind our vision and push through obstacles. In order to thrive and evolve, we must also step out of the familiar zone, and engage in activities which stretch our mental reserves. Adopting an action mindset allows us to reach beyond the observed limitations of our present moment and create new realities for ourselves. How we approach challenges: do we shy away from them or hold our head up high and power through? The answer has a huge impact on the kind of decisions we make and, therefore, how we spend our lives. We are what we choose to do.
The term 'action mindset' conveys the dynamic quality of sisu as an action-enabling strength capacity. Based on the survey data collected from 1,060 respondents in 2013, sisu and it's sister construct, the action mindset, seem to be especially useful in generating the impetus to tackle highly challenging tasks.
Understanding the Nature of Adversities
Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously wrote "Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail." Adversities are an unavoidable, universal part of the human experience. Striving to achieve meaningful goals, pursuing our purpose or standing up for our values are acts which often involve enduring numerous failures. Furthermore, we may face unexpected hardships and trauma, which take us to the very edge of our existence.
If we are to determine a comprehensive understanding of the human experience, and of the enabling factors of a good life, we must understand what makes individuals persevere and recover from setbacks. Consequently, positive psychology has turned its focus on the more challenging aspects of life in order to explore the full canvas of human experience. Along with exalting the benefits of positive emotions (such as joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, amusement, awe, and love) and exploring topics such as meaning, positive relationships and well-being, researchers have done seminal work in examining the meaning of adversity, post-traumatic growth, and resilience.
There are some events in life that contain the possibility for drastic change, in the form of a newly discovered, profound sense of strength and purpose. Recent studies on post-traumatic growth affirm that crises and trauma can create surprisingly positive psychological outcomes. Research on stress management, coping with trauma and post-traumatic growth all suggest that there can indeed be deep-seated, positive benefits to be gained from hardship. These include strengthening of character, a deeper experience of purpose and meaning, and increased resilience, as well as enhanced relationships and greater appreciation of life. The key is to understand the significance of the experience, and to see oneself as a thriver instead of a victim, as an active narrator of one´s story instead of a passive bystander.
It has been found that after the adversity is over the individual does not simply revert to a baseline level, but experiences personal development which can be quite profound. What this means is that post-traumatic growth seems to contribute to a powerful change in some pre-established schemas within the individual, and lead to lasting improvement. However, this growth does not occur as an immediate result of trauma, but its occurrence and quality is defined in the complex integration and assimilation process which takes place after the event. Often people tend to be surprised by their own experience of growth, implying it had not been a conscious goal. A wide body of research shows that the way we deal with adversity has an enormous impact on our subjective well-being. Furthermore, having access to caring connections and social support plays a huge role.
Organisms are programmed to seek out a comfortable state, and to remain in preservation mode until the balance is disturbed and the organism is forced to seek alternative means and response models. Staying in this place of equilibrium saves valuable energy to sustain life, but also hinders the organism from the benefits which delving deeply into its resources can bring. Even though it is always uninvited, poorly timed and delivering a heavy burden, adversity may offer us the unparalleled gift of growth in the form of a newly found sense of self, of our own power and adaptability.
Understanding the psychological power potential of sisu and adopting an action-mindset may help us become more resilent. It may also offer us an understanding of our capacity to better handle the challenges and crises we face. Humans have a staggering ability to adapt and grow, and we usually need to look no further than our own past (or that of our loved ones) to know this. Our stories hold nearly infinite power. They showcase the universal spirit and bravery we share in common. They ignite hope, and prime us to follow their inspiring example while simultaneously enabling us to recognize our shared qualities, fostering compassion toward our fellow human beings. Reframing challenges as learning experiences, and embracing crises as opportunities to unlock potential strengths (which we might not otherwise discover) is at the core of my work. Sisu is a new construct within the field of positive psychology. I am excited to see what its detailed examination and possible future applications might unveil to us about the determinants of resilience, mental toughness, well-being and perhaps even our ability to build stronger, safer communities. .
Life often challenges us, and sometimes even threatens to break us, but we can actually become stronger in the aftermath of these challenges. My mission is to remind everyone who I meet that the strength within us as individuals (and especially when we come together to support one another) is much more powerful than the adversities we encounter.
Join me in this mission by making it a conscious goal to encourage those around you to become the best possible versions of themselves. Let's turn barriers into frontiers!