Master’s Thesis Project
Master of Applied Positive Psychology
University of Pennsylvania
Advisor: Angela Lee Duckworth, PhD
August 1, 2013
Adversities are a natural part of the human experience. What is it that enables us to persevere through hardship despite feeling we have reached the end of our capacities? The small Nordic country of Finland has a cultural construct known as sisu, used to describe the enigmatic power that enables individuals to push though unbearable challenges. Sisu is a term which dates back hundreds of years, yet the concept remains poorly defined and understudied. In this paper, 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 I have 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 of 2013) on the representations of sisu among 1,060 Finnish and Finnish Americans respondents was also analyzed. 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). Furthermore, sisu is believed to be a flexible quality which one can cultivate through conscious practice (rather than a being a fixed quality), and the majority of respondents were interested in developing this capacity.
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. Sisu is a new term in the field of positive psychology, and I propose that it contributes to our understanding of the determinants of resilience, as well as of achievement. The goal of this paper is to expand the realms of our language and understanding, and to thus transform the ways in which we perceive our abilities.
Keywords: Sisu, perseverance, resilience, action mindset, positive psychology, Finland