The Scandinavian notion of sisu is a combination of virtues and qualities that can help us face challenges and be more than we think we can.
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Finland, like other Scandinavian countries, ranks high in international surveys of happiness. One big reason, according to author Joanna Nylund, might be the practice of something called sisu.
The concept of sisu (pronounced SIS-soo) goes back hundreds of years, but became popularized in the 1920s. It’s difficult to define but is basically a combination of courage, resilience, grit, hardiness, and determination. — perhaps just what you can imagine needing when the winter is long and the days are dark as they are in Scandinavia.
Sisu is something you possess, as well as something you cultivate and strengthen. It is also something that connects us with others. No matter where we live, our age or circumstance, sisu is a quality we all need in order to face the challenges of life and become great humans.
While chances are that you have already tapped into your own sisu — such as not giving up on something or someone, pushing through something uncomfortable, or doing something that you really didn’t want to do. Like any virtue or quality, it is only by practicing sisu that you grow in it.
So if you want to cultivate this desirable Finnish trait, here are some ideas inspired by Nylund’s book, Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage.
Work at being physically and mentally stronger
When we strengthen our bodies, we feel stronger overall. So lift some weights, work on your flexibility and endurance through exercise, challenge yourself to try new physical things you haven’t done.
Our mental muscle can also grow flabby, but the best way to strengthen it is to do hard things. Let yourself be uncomfortable in daily situations … rinse off in cold water when showering, go for a walk in unpleasant weather, fast from food or drink regularly, commit to reading time regularly or learning something new.
Make yourself spiritually stronger
Sisu is in large part a kind of courage, which is a virtue. Courage is not a lack of fear but a decision to feel the fear and do it anyway. It is the commitment to doing the the right thing even when we’re afraid. Prayer helps us do this. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” we are reminded in Philippians 4:11–13.
Practice being vulnerable
Sisu can come across as stoicism, but it is not about avoiding emotion. When we are comfortable with emotions – our own and those of others — we are stronger, more honest, and better able to withstand what life brings our way.
The Finns are known for appreciating silence and they view it as important to sisu. So practice slowing down a bit, not rushing to fill silences or quiet moments, putting your phone down and observing what’s around you more often.
Spend more time in nature
Connecting to nature is a big way to cultivate sisu. Finns think of nature as an extension of their homes. So spend a little time outside every day — whether it’s going for a walk, or taking a bike ride or hike. Also, bring a little nature inside such as branches or flowers you find, house plants and herbs, pinecones, or beautiful stones or shells.
Have more straighforward conversations
One of the ways to apply sisu to communication is to be a good listener, to be honest, to avoid drama and gossip, and to say what you mean and mean what you say. “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.” (Matthew 5:37)
Sisu is about being able to stretch beyond what you think are your limitations. The more flexible you are, in terms of being able to set aside your own desires in the moment, the more resilient you become.
Grow a backbone
Sisu can help you stand for what you believe in; it helps you speak up for what is right and remain firm in your convictions. Sometimes we have to stand alone for something and sisu helps us do that.
While the multi-faceted concept of sisu may be a distinguishable mark of the Finnish, it is ultimately a universal ability that all of us can cultivate in order to lead a happier and holier life.