The Finnish word “sisu” might be deemed impossible to translate, but researcher Emilia Lahti says the rest of the world can learn from the concept of drawing on inner strength and determination in the face of adversity, which both underlies resilience and helps drive social change.
Sisu is the energy and reserve people call upon when all other efforts have dried up - the “second wind” that helps them move forward and survive, said Lahti, who described the centuries-old enigmatic concept as a vital element of the Finnish psyche, often credited with helping the vastly outnumbered Finns fight against the Soviet Union in World War II.
“Sisu is this very strong determination in the face of extreme adversity which allows you to push through that moment where you feel there’s no way of going further,” said Lahti, a researcher at Finland’s Aalto University. “It’s the last resort of inner strength that carries us when all else fails.”
Sisu has been a key driver of resilience - a set of strategies that can be learned to enable people to re-evaluate and adapt in a positive way to tough situations, said Lahti by telephone from New Zealand where she had just completed an Ironman triathlon.
“It’s something that powers resilience. It underlies our ability to try one more time and start anew,” she said. “Sisu is like the engine of all our efforts that lead to the continuation of life.”
Lahti, who described how her experience of domestic abuse led her to quit her job to study positive psychology, is currently training for a gruelling series of 50 consecutive ultra-marathons in November. She will cover the length of New Zealand as part of her “Sisu not Silence” campaign to highlight domestic violence around the world.
While some have said it is impossible to understand the Finnish people or culture without a grasp of sisu, little research work had been done on the concept, said Lahti. So she interviewed men and women around the world affected by family violence to discover how people tapped into sisu, which then drove some to work actively in their communities.
“In psychology, we don’t have a construct yet for what is that moment when we overcome and we tap into some strength,” said Lahti. “The reward might be you live to see another day or you stay sane among difficult things.”
Looking at how people in developing countries deal on a daily basis with challenges and hardships could offer a better understanding of how people apply sisu in their lives, according to Lahti, who said the word meant more than grit or hardiness.
“Sisu is not about winning, it’s about giving all you have,” she said. “No matter where we are in the world, we’re all naked in the face of adversity… we’re all on the same start line and we’re equally vulnerable to it.”