The cultural construct describes the enigmatic inner power that pushes people to get through hardships.
About a year ago I came across a piece of writing by researcher Emilia Lahti explaining the Finnish cultural construct known as "sisu." I had read about the term before, but Lahti's description resonated soundly with me.
She explains that the concept is at the core of what it is to be Finnish – though its relevance is universal. The idea is centuries old and maintains that in each of us there is more strength than meets the eye; it is extraordinary courage and determination in the face of adversity. She writes:"Sisu is more about taking action against the odds and stretching beyond one's observed capacities, than about pursuing long term goals. It relates to what we do when we face formidable obstacles while striving for a goal. Because of its emphasis on short term intensity rather than long term stamina, sisu seems to render itself different from other related constructs such as perseverance and grit. It can be seen as something that acts as a pathway to resileince, which is referred to as the dynamic process of positive adaptation to stress or a tragedy."
She adds this, which I love:
One could say that sisu begins where grit and perseverance end, and is akin to an extra gear of psychological strength.
I often think about where people get this seemingly supernatural strength from – when suffering tragedy, in the throes of childbirth, during endurance events, living through times of war or other, ahem, difficult political periods. And I've wanted to write about sisu ever since I read Lahti's post. But as it's a cultural construct, which by their nature are a bit abstract, I didn't feel like I understood it enough from the Finnish perspective. So I've just let it roll around in my brain ever since.
But now Lahti has published a study on the subject, and I'm thrilled because it means there is data and conclusions, making it a much more concrete topic to write about.
"Sisu has traditionally been elusive and poorly defined," notes a statement from Aalto University, where Lahti is a doctoral student. The university states that this is the first study to "break down the cultural construct in a systematic way to describe a universal phenomenon of hidden energy in the human system."
For the research Lahti analyzed more than 1000 responses from Finns and others familiar with sisu on what it means.
The university notes, "One of the most prominent aspects apparent in the data: extraordinary perseverance, in other words, an individual's ability to surpass preconceived limitations, either mentally or physically, by accessing stored-up energy reserves."
She discovered another common theme: Finding the courage to take action, even in the face of narrow odds, "in some cases appearing to the respondents almost as a 'magic' source of power that can help pull through tremendous challenges, whether self-selected like an ultra-run or something unexpected like a health struggle."
Even still, it is apparently difficult to fully describe sisu – but I liked this take: an internal, latent force that moves you forward when you think you have reached your limit. "It is almost like a spare tank of gas" Lahti explains. "Its benefits are thanks to adversity, not in spite of it."
But like so many other things in life, too much of a good thing can lead to bad things.
"Sisu will help us take the next step – or the first one – but the outcome of that action will depend on how we use it. In that sense, sisu can be constructive or it can be destructive."
What does that mean? That all that extra strength and determination is great, but can also lead to burnout, exhaustion, disconnection and even "create an attitude of mercilessness as the individual imposes his or her own harsh standards on others."
"Finland is an interesting case," Lahti says. "We've again been named world's happiest country and in global terms we have an excellent social welfare system, but at the same time we are a country that, also, struggles with things like suicide, depression and domestic violence."
She adds, "We need sisu, but we also need things like benevolence, compassion and honesty with ourselves."
Kindness mixed with extraordinary courage and determination in the face of adversity? Sounds like a magic mix to me.