Sisu is a Finnish word generally meaning determination, bravery, and resilience. However, the word is widely considered to lack a proper translation into any other language. Sisu is about taking action against the odds and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision against repeated failures is Sisu. It is similar to equanimity, except the forbearance of Sisu has a grimmer quality of stress management than the latter. The noun Sisu is related to the adjective sisukas, one having the quality of Sisu.
"Having guts" is a fairly literal translation, as the word derives from sisus, which means something inner or interior. One closely related concept to Sisu is grit; which shares some its denoting elements with Sisu, save for 'stress management' and passion for a long term goal. Sisu may have an element of passion but it is not always present, unlike in the case of grit as defined by Dr. Angela Duckworth. Sisu is also related to concepts such as resilience, perseverance and hardiness.
Sisu as a psychological capacity
Sisu is a term which dates back hundreds of years and is described as being integral to understanding Finnish culture. It is a term for going beyond one´s mental or physical capacity, and is a central part of the country´s culture and collective discourse. However, hardly any empirical research has been done to explore the meaning of this construct as a possible psychological strength resource, and it has long seemed to have a somewhat elusive nature. It has been usually studied as a cultural component among Finns and Finnish Americans, but as a psychological construct has remained under-researched and poorly defined.
As early as the 1940´s, attempts were made to grasp the essence of Sisu. The Finnish newspaper Uusi-Suomi reached out to its audience for their definition of sisu, and conducted a contest. Uusi Suomi wrote: "All of us somewhat know what sisu is ... [it] has for long been a topic for discussion here in Finland and abroad. But how do we describe and define what sisu really is?". The quest for putting the essence of Sisu into a definitive form has evidently been around for almost a century. More recently, William R. Aho, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Rhodes College, raised questions about Sisu, and stated that “we need a good deal of organized, systematic scientific research to discover the scope and depth of Sisu, geographically and situationally, and the depth and strength of both the beliefs and behaviors surrounding and emanating from sisu.”
A recent study aimed to fill in that gap, and offer a more precise language for discussing the term. While examining Sisu within the psychological framework, it sought to render it less elusive as a construct by giving it an easily citable definition rooted within the field of positive psychology. Sisu as a psychological power potential was introduced for the first time in the 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology in Los Angeles on June 29, 2013. In the study, Sisu is described as a psychological key competence which enables extraordinary action to overcome a mentally or physically challenging situation. Sisu also contributes to what has been named the action mindset; a consistent, courageous approach toward challenges which at first seem to exceed our capacities. A related on-line survey (conducted between March and May 2013) tracked the cultural representations of Sisu among contemporary Finns (and Finnish Americans) and revealed that Sisu is still deeply valued, and that there is public interest for cultivating this strength capacity as well. All in all, the study received 1,060 responses. Among the main findings was the perception of Sisu as a reserve of power, which enables extraordinary action to overcome mentally or physically challenging situations (rather than being the ability to pursue long-term goals and be persistent). To elaborate on the function of Sisu: it is a powerful psychological potential which enables the individual to tap into mental strength beyond their pre-conceived resources. Wielding Sisu in the face of adversity helps individuals push through what first seemed like the boundaries of their mental or physical capacities. Furthermore, Sisu is an action mindset which equips the individual to choose to take on challenges beyond their observed capacities. It provides the final empowering push when we would otherwise hesitate to act. Sisu can be conceptualized as taking action against the odds. Additionally, even though 53% of the respondents believed some people innate have more Sisu, a majority of 83% of the respondents believed that Sisu is a flexible quality which can be cultivated through conscious practice (rather than a being a fixed quality), and the majority of respondents were interested in developing this capacity.
Sisu is not always an entirely positive quality. In Finnish language pahansisuinen literally translated means one possessing bad sisu, a description of a hostile and malignant person. Furthermore, the answers from the Sisu survey indicate that there can be too much Sisu, and according to the survey answers this leads to bull-headedness, foolhardiness, self-centeredness and inflexible thinking. The study suggests that Sisu should be informed by reason and cultivated (and practiced) with self-compassion.
Like any trait or psychological capacity, Sisu is the complex product of genetic, psychological, biological and social factors, and its comprehensive understanding will require studies from multiple scientific perspectives. Finland may have the initial monopoly on Sisu as a cultural construct, but it is a universal capacity and the potential for it exists within all individuals. The transformative power of narrative is widely acknowledged Through the process of social transfer of narratives, values become embedded within a culture and connected to the thought processes of its individuals. People, through their choices and actions, bring these narratives to life in a dynamic process which can prime the behavior of an entire nation. Fostering Sisu may very well be embedded in such behavior, rather than being a genetical trait which one is born with. Sisu is a new term in the field of positive psychology, and it may contribute to our understanding of the determinants of resilience, as well as of achievement and the good life. It is suggested that positive psychology research could benefit from focusing future interest on the unique cultural resource of Sisu that individuals across the globe can leverage; as well as actively examining relevant constructs from other cultures.
Sisu has been described by The New York Times as "the word that explains Finland", and the Finns' "favorite word"—"the most wonderful of all their words." During the famous Winter War of 1939–1940, the Finnish perseverance in the face of the invasion by the Soviet Union popularized this word in English for a generation. In what might have been the first use of Sisu in the English language, on January 8, 1940, Time magazine reported:
The Finns have something they call Sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate Sisu as "the Finnish spirit" but it is a much more gutful word than that. Last week the Finns gave the world a good example of Sisu by carrying the war into Russian territory on one front while on another they withstood merciless attacks by a reinforced Russian Army. In the wilderness that forms most of the Russo-Finnish frontier between Lake Laatokka and the Arctic Ocean, the Finns definitely gained the upper hand.
Singled out for kudos for this attribute was "Finland's wiry old peasant President, Kyösti Kallio—73 years old and full of Sisu (courage)—last week thought up a new scheme to get supplies for his country." It was also used to describe the Finnish stubbornness in sticking to its loose alliance with The Third Reich from 1940 to 1943:
Finnish sisu—meaning a peculiarly Finnish brand of doggedness, capable of facing down death itself—was at work against the Allies. ... The Finns are not happy. But Sisu enables them to say: "We have nothing worse than death to fear."
HELSINKI, host to the Olympic Games, a city of 400,000, was abustle. ... The Finns are not stupidly hiding their eyes from their future, but they are determined not to fall into another fight with a powerful and predatory next-door neighbor 66 times their size (in area, Finland is the sixth largest country in Europe; in population it is the third smallest). Under popular, 81-year-old President Juho Kusti Paasikivi and able, unpopular Agrarian Premier Urho Kekkonen, the Finns have learned to walk the nerve-racking path of independence like tight-rope walkers.
Well into the 1960s, Sisu was used to describe the Finnish resistance to the invasion of 20 to 30 years prior and its continuing discontents. In 1960, Austin Goodrich's book, Study in Sisu: Finland's Fight for Independence, was published by Ballantine. Also in 1960, a notable reviewer of Griffin Taylor's novel, Mortlake, wrote:
"HAVE you heard of Finnish sisu?" asks a character in "Mortlake" – and it turns out that sisu is a sort of stamina or staying-power which the Finns have had to develop as a result of living next door to the Russians.
Even in 2009, sisu is so important to being Finnish that "to be a real Finn" you must have it: "willpower, tenacity, persistency."
Due to its cultural significance, Sisu is a common element of brand names in Finland. For example, there are Sisu brand trucks (and Sisu armored vehicles), icebreaker MS Sisu, a brand of strong-tasting pastilles manufactured by Leaf, and a Finnish nationalist organisation Suomen Sisu. Globally, there are several fitness related organizations and endurance sports teams such as the Sisu Project based in Haverhill and Worcester Massachusetts, USA that carry the name of Sisu and base their philosophy on the values which Sisu denotes (such as courage, integrity, honesty and determination). Mount Sisu is the name of a mountain first ascended by mountain climbers Veikka Gustafsson and Patrick Degerman in the Antarctic.
In times like these, the executives who run Nokia talk up a uniquely Finnish quality called Sisu. "The translation would be 'guts,' " says Jorma Ollila, CEO of Nokia, in an interview. (Photograph Caption: Jorma Ollila says Nokia is determined to 'overcome all obstacles.') "But it's also endurance. There is a long-term element to it. You overcome all obstacles. You need quite a lot of sisu to survive in this climate." The climate he's referring to is the bleak and bitter Nordic winters, but he might as well be talking about the competitive, erratic wireless-phone market and Nokia's travails. This sisu trait—anathema to Wall Street's short-term outlook—says a lot about Nokia's response to its recent turmoil.—Kevin Maney, USA TODAY (italics in original)
Sisu is also the name of a London based hedge-fund, operated by several directors including Joy Seppala. The firm bought the football club Coventry City FC in 2007.
In popular culture
A Finnish heavy metal rock singer injured himself, without noticing, at a concert, to which a reviewer wrote:
Alan epäillä, että suomalainen sisu ja adrenaliini ovat yksi ja sama asia.—I am beginning to suspect that the Finnish Sisu and adrenaline are the same thing.—ImperiumI.net Finnish Heavy Metal website
In Robert A. Heinlein's "juvenile" novel, Citizen of the Galaxy, the protagonist was adopted by the captain of an interstellar trading ship which was named "Sisu". This reflected Heinlein's admiration of the Finnish stand against the Soviets, Heinlein himself being ardently anti-communist. The interstellar trading "family" of which this ship was but a part, is described as being fiercely proud and independent, preferring battle and death to being taken prisoner by raiding pirates.
In the song entitled White Death by Sabaton, which is about the WWII-era Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä, the lyrics reference the idea of Sisu. "Hundreds of kills/ a man and his rifle/ Embody the Sisu of finns/ Stay out of sight and cover your head/ When he pulls the trigger you're dead"
Use in the Upper Peninsula
The term is commonly used in everyday speech to describe stoic toughness. It is widely understood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is home to a large concentration of Americans of Finnish descent. This has extended to include a popular bumper sticker saying simply "Sisu". By analogy, the term has picked up new meanings. Depending on context, Sisu can refer to spunk, attitude, self-confidence, and so on. However, Sisu is not bravery, nor strength. It is distinguished from courage, especially when talking about the military. Sisu is an ability to finish a task successfully, as defined by Roman Schatz in his book From Finland with Love (2005), and decisiveness. Usually, Sisu means the will and decisiveness to surmount challenges against impossible odds. Yet still there are many "yoopers" who use, and represent Sisu in traditional Finnish terms because of the strong ties to Finland, and their interwoven history. The long winters, harsh climate, and depressed economy make Sisu a staple of surviving a lifetime in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to many citizens.
On the Western end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the SISU Ski Fest is a popular annual event, highlighting a 21 and 42 kilometer cross-country ski race "finnishing" in historic downtown Ironwood.
- Ganbaru, a Japanese word with a similar meaning
- Psychological resilience
- Intention (criminal law)
- Seny - the Catalan concept of good sense
- Stiff upper lip
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|Look up sisu in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Above and Beyond Perseverance with Sisu a blog focused on examining Sisu as a psychological capacity
- Washington Post: "The Finnish Line", about Finnish fortitude and resilience
- UP SISU: "The Finns of Northern Michigan", about Finnish culture in Northern Michigan
- a YouTube video where Mika Häkkinen explains what sisu is (starts at 4:32)