This Finnish Approach to Daily Life Can Help You Deal With Difficult Times

Finnish perseverance in the face of the Winter War invasion by the Soviet Union popularized the idea of sisu for a generation. Today the word's meaning goes far beyond military settings to the whole country's sense of grit. (Photo: Oriole Gin/Shutterstock)

Can our understanding of the world be influenced by the language we use to describe it? It seems intuitively true, but not all linguists agree on this point.

What we do know for sure is that some languages have words for ideas or concepts that don't exist in other languages. Words from various Nordic languages have been enjoying their moment in the sun — think hygge (which is "cozy" on steroids and for all areas of your life) or lagom (an all-encompassing moderation in life).

And now, from Finland, we have sisu (pronounced see-soo). This simple word has been defined as a variant or expansion on the idea of grit or determination. But like the other popular Nordic words, sisu is much bigger than a singular concept. "It's a mindset or life philosophy," explains researcher Emilia Lahti in the TEDx video below. She says big concepts like integrity and honesty are closer to the scope of what sisu means. Sisu is a way of approaching life.

It's been around for a very long time — "centuries," says Lahti. Learning this life philosophy starts early: "We learn sisu before we learn to talk or walk."

Importantly, sisu is not just about being "tough" in the face of challenges; to really build strength, fortitude needs to be practiced on a regular basis. So Sisu isn't merely a certain reaction to a life event, it's a proactive preparation for them.

Courage in everyday things

"It’s a kind of everyday courage which helps improve well-being and build resilience, making it easier to cope," Katja Pantzar, the author of the new book, "Finding Sisu," told The Daily Mail. But how do you accomplish this mindset of perseverance and grit? Practice.

Towards that end goal, Pantzar swims in very cold water most days — a Finnish tradition. (She follows it with a sauna, another Nordic past time.) She says regularly challenging herself in this simple, straightforward way has decreased her depression and anxiety, lowered her stress levels, and given her more energy.

These everyday challenges to practice sisu are a choice you opt into, not something someone else decides for you. "You choose challenging activities, such as cycling to work no matter the weather, or swimming in freezing water, instead of taking the easy way out," said Pantzar. By looking for small tasks that test your mettle, you gain strength over time.

Even if they are uncomfortable at times, these challenges are an almost constant reminder of how much strength you have — which is exactly the point. You can then rely on that knowledge of your own capacity when the going gets tough, and you push through because you know you can. (The video below focuses on that thread of "just knowing" through the perspective of a professional driver.)

"[Sisu] means you don't see a silver lining, but you jump into the storm anyway," says Lahti. "There is something that elicits hope, in sisu."