Bios are boring, so here’s a Q and A which is just painfully long : )
Q: Let’s get straight to the point. Who are you and what makes you tick?
Alright, let’s. At the core of my life philosophy is the idea that we are all strong beyond measure. As one of my favorite Finnish philosophers (ok, I’m biased since this fantastic human is also my PhD advisor), Dr. Esa Saarinen, often says: “There is more to us than meets the eye, more that is good”.
To elaborate on this a bit, I guess my artistry consists of two main ideas. The first one relates to our inner potential and understanding what enables humans to take action, not despite but because of the hardships they endure. This is epitomized by a fascinating, age-old Finnish construct called sisu which relates to resoluteness in the face of adversity. Hardships are a natural part of the human experience, and how we deal with them has a huge impact on the quality of our life. The good news is that psychological resilience (the ability to bounce back from hardship) is a skill that can be cultivated through conscious effort.
The second part is about our shared potential. In its heart lies a deep understanding of the enormous extent to which our actions (and even our thoughts, because they manifest themselves through our actions) impact others around us. This impact can be positive and socially empowering, but it can also be negative and, at worst, destructive. An individual’s profound understanding of the interconnected nature of all life, and the systems we are part of, is what I consider to be at the core of ‘the good life’ and the kind of wisdom that can lead to sustainable positive change.
Q: Anything in particular that has led to this discovery?
A few years ago, my life as I knew it was ejected from its existing orbit (not in a sunny California road trip – oh let’s go off-road for fun – style, but in an apocalyptic ‘bat from hell’ kinda way), and as a result of these events fell on an entirely new trajectory. Hardly anything about me, my thinking or my life remained the same; perhaps running has been the only truly consistent thing throughout the years. Eventually these events came to mark the beginning of a new purpose-driven era in my life and now I’m a rocking a whole new symphony of sisu.
As a result of my experiences, I became endlessly curious about what enables people to persevere through extreme hardship, and even grow from it. One really peculiar thing about post-traumatic growth is that you don’t merely return to your previous state. In fact, sometimes a remarkable thing happens as a result of a life changing event or profound experience of pain.
The strenuous moments which force us to reflect on the inner depths of our character, and to even ponder the very meaning of life itself, change us irreversibly and cultivate our sense of empathy for others, for the world, and for ourselves. This transformation may be compared to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. The caterpillar quite literally dissolves into liquid inside the chrysalis, and from that mess a completely new life is born. This is pretty mind-blowing, I think.
Q: You mentioned sisu. Is it something I can order in a Japanese restaurant and enjoy with wasabi?
Funny you’d mention wasabi. I guess you could say that sisu is to mental toughness what wasabi is to sushi. It gives it a massive kick!
Sisu is a Finnish word denoting extraordinary determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity. This means very difficult life situations or events and is not to be confused with the angst we often bring upon ourselves by getting worked up by all kinds of trivial nuisances of our privileged lives (i.e. being pissed off because we didn’t find a parking spot near the grocery store or when it happened to rain during the run (unless it is raining something utterly crazy, like rogue wasps or cactuses!). One could say sisu begins where your perseverance ends and you have to exceed your previously observed capacities. Late philosopher and physician William James, wrote that we have hidden energy within us which we may not have access to until we really need it, and that crises often offer an unparalleled opportunity to tap into this deeper strength. He called it the ‘second wind’, and continued that most of us never run far enough to discover we have such strength. I love the expression because in some ways it describes pretty well what sisu is about. It’s like discovering that you have a jetpack on your back when you are on your way down.
Sisu is especially useful in creating impetus for getting started with an impossible task or taking action against the odds. I call this the action mindset. Furthermore, in the Finnish tradition sisu is about honesty and integrity, and about not complaining too much during hardships. You’ll address the difficulty, yes, perhaps curse and rant a bit, but then you get to action. Sisu is about equanimity, rationality and this kind of stoically silent, relentless action in the face of a significant challenge. Furthermore, for example within the context of sports, having sisu does not have to mean you place first or annihilate all of your opponents.
Sisu is more about immersing yourself in the experience with every fiber of your being and not giving up. Ultimately, it is not so much about achievement as it is about giving some effort all you’ve got.
Q: How did your interest in sisu arise?
You know, I had a tough childhood. I’m just kidding. However, my parents indeed played a significant role in this process. They are tenacious, mentally strong people who don’t take bs from anyone. Yet, they have softness and are able to apologize when they are wrong. My parents have always told me to finish what I start, stay relentless and also reminded me to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. Justice and fairness are elementary to integrity, and integrity is in the core of the more socially directed dimension of sisu.
However, my interest toward sisu as a research subject kind of emerged as a result of my own experiences and randomly crashing Dr. Angela Duckworth’s undergrad class where she was teaching about grit. Other people whom I absolutely have to mention are my husband, who himself is an incredible epitome of grit and sisu, and Drs. Esa Saarinen, Lauri Järvilehto and Frank Martela from Finland, who have each played a role in encouraging me to dive deeper into this unexplored domain. For the most part, my overall sisu journey (and life in general) seems to be a mix of utterly random encounters and bizarre ideas powered by my never ending curiosity toward life. But isn’t that really what most of our lives are like?
Q: Can sisu be developed – and if yes: how?
Intuitively, I would rush to give you an excited ‘yes’! Mainly because what we know from social psychology is that words and narratives (and the meanings we draw from them) can be a hugely empowering factor in our lives. However, I’ll just take it easy and say perhaps, but we don’t know since no empirical research has been conducted, yet. When saying this, I am following the example of my guru and mentor, Angela. I remember struggling with my ‘budding researcher’ identity (you know, worrying whether what you contribute is useful and meaningful enough, or if you are just utterly wasting everyone’s time). Angela, who advised my master’s thesis, gave me an advice which will stick with me forever. She said, “Emilia, you don’t have to be right. You just have to be honest.” I think this is the golden rule of any research, and it applies to life in general in many ways, too.
Only after the (tediously) thrilling construct validation work, which I am involved with right now, we can begin looking at cultivating this capacity. A majority of 83% of the over 1,000 respondents to the sisu survey last spring, said that they believe sisu is a quality which can be developed through conscious effort (as opposed to being a fixed capacity). Now this is explosive! What we know from Dr. Carol Dweck’s work is that our beliefs are one of the biggest indicators of our future actions. If we believe a character trait is fixed, we are less likely to engage in activities which might modify it and are therefore less likely to change. Therefore, our beliefs in a way set the boundaries within which we operate in our daily lives.
Anyway, you can expect some results in the years to come. If not, I will just transform into the lone ultra-runner I always felt I was destined to become and disappear somewhere in Lapland with a sack of Vibrams! On that high note, physical activity may indeed be one of the many potential ways to develop one’s sisu…
Q: What has been the most sisuesque moment of your life?
Sisu is about exceeding yourself. I think one of my first true sisu moments was when I was maybe four and stood up against a scary girl who was bullying some other girl at a hospital where I was waiting to have a kidney operation. Then, when I was 12 years old and I cycled (alone) to my grandmother’s place to Alavus, which was 67 kilometers from my then home. On a more epic, transformative note, probably rebuilding myself from scratch after experiencing a deep trauma some years ago.
Nowadays I am an outspoken anti-domestic violence advocate and my purpose is to enable cultural change in the way how we speak about this atrocity. According to WHO (2013) one woman three experiences domestic violence or sexual abuse during their lifetime (and often it is in the hands of those who were supposed to protect and cherish them). These women and also men (one in eight) are often silenced by the stigma that comes with it – stigma that should always be only on the perpetrator. My life (among many others) is a living example of how things can turn around when own our story, tap into our inner sisu and reach out for caring connections in our lives. It’s been a long journey but I am now where I belong. Now it’s my time to help others.
Q: How is Sisu tied to the Finnish culture?
Sisu is tightly woven onto the fibers of Finnish culture, and it has even been said that one needs to understand the meaning of sisu in order to truly understand Finns. Why sisu became a concept in Finland in particular relates to the country’s history which includes a lot foreign occupation, hard weather conditions and invasions. Finns learned that having sisu was the way to sustain life when things got really bad. The construct is still deeply embedded within the Finnish mainstream dialogue and I am incredibly excited to examine how its full brilliance can be unfolded and possibly leveraged to bring about systems-wide positive change. Language is the foundation of how we communicate, and up to this point, Sisu as a construct has remained understudied and rather elusive. Reframing something from “untranslatable” and “unfathomable” (like has often been described) to a word or description which carries meaning can be a potent game-changer. It opens up a whole new world around the construct and brings it within people´s reach.
Q: Can I profit from Sisu – even if I’m not Finnish?
Kyllä! Even though Finland may have the first take on sisu as a cultural construct, it is a universal power capacity for which the potential exists within all individuals. There are numerous examples of sisu in different cultures. Somewhat similar constructs (though not exactly) are the Yiddish term chutzpah, Spanish rasmia and the Japanese words ganbaru and gaman. It would be great to put together a repository of all these constructs as well as the narratives that relate to them.
Q: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
On a personal level: To add value to the world, be present for the people I encounter, to lead by example, and to sweat daily!
On an exponentially more epic level: To live in a world where no beings are abused or used, and where no humans are discriminated, suppressed or treated differently based on their gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic background and the like.
Q: What have been some of your ‘enlightening’ moments? Or have you had any? : )
I’ve had a few : D (We are always in a process of becoming). One of them was during the sixth day of a ten-day Vipassana meditation course in Maryland. I had a deep, life-altering realization of how even such seemingly opposite feelings such as love and suffering, hate and compassion, are ultimately the same in their essence. Just like any sensation on my body or the wants and needs of my mind, they are all impermanent. Holding on to anger or hurt from the past is therefore absurdity and it will only keep me from reaching true peace.
So, I chose to let go of it, and just like that, I became more free than I had possibly ever been.
Q: So… what’s the purpose of your life?
Sometimes it is hard to believe in yourself before someone else believes in you first. I want to be *that* person for the people I meet. Indeed, after my own personal encounter with suffering and the growth that resulted, this (and my sweetheart) is why I wake up every morning; to open doors for others by striving to create a safe place for them to experience the deep, life-altering epiphany of their own power, strength and adaptability. This, in short, is my purpose.
Q: Any life lessons you’d wanna share?
At the end of the day, we are our own best healers, and true deep-seated happiness originates from within. However, people around us make up the vital social infrastructure which carries everything. We are all weaved into it. An easy way to evaluate our actions in pretty much any context is to ask oneself the simple question:
“Am I part of the solution or contributing to the problem?” Ultimately, social change can be as simple as that.
Q: Who is your hero in fiction or real life?
My husband is someone whose entire way of being really inspires me. That man is what you get when you mix sisu and smarts with exquisite creativity and competence (and toss in a couple of tardigrades!)
Q: What is your motto?
While you are doing it anyways, you might as well give it all you’ve got.
This applies pretty well to everything from exercising, working and meditating to connecting with other people and to yourself. Naturally, all of this must be informed by reason.
Q: What are your favorite words?
Besides the obvious four-letter one, I would have to say ‘transcendence’ and ‘systems intelligence’. Realizing that there are no meaningless actions or even thoughts (because every one of them gets ingrained on our neocortex) and that we have a responsibility (and a unique opportunity) to make sure our contribution is a positive one. Understanding in a deep, experiential level that you are part something much greater than yourself, can be a huge game changer.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
Emilia Lahti is an entrepreneur, researcher and a passionate anti-domestic violence advocate. Her work revolves around understanding how individuals can grow from challenges and come out of hardship with a newly discovered, profound sense of strength, purpose and adaptability. She graduated from the UPenn Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program, where she studied under Dr. Martin Seligman, and wrote her master´s thesis on the Finnish construct of sisu under the mentorship Dr. Angela Duckworth, a pioneer in the field of grit and self-control. Currently, she is working on a PhD under the guidance of Dr. Esa Saarinen at the Aalto University School of Science in Helsinki and is training to run the length of Zealand as part of her effort to raise awareness on domestic violence.
Emilia loves running in the rain, reading in the sunshine and rolling in the snow. She divides her time between California and Finland.
Positiivisen psykologian voima, 2014 [The power of positive psychology – chapter on sisu]. One of the first positive psychology books written in Finnish.
Positive psychologists on positive psychology (vol. 2.), 2013
TEDxTurku – Sisu: Transforming Barriers Into Frontiers (Dec. 4, 2014)
A summary of the work: Words make our words: Introducing Sisu
Forbes: The Sisu Social: Can Finns Teach The World To Hang Tough? (Giovanni Rodriguez, September 1, 2014)
Business Insider: Sisu: This Untranslatable Finnish Word Takes Perseverance To A Whole New Level Read (Drake Baer, June 17, 2014)
Sisu at The Scientific American by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (March 19, 2014)
Sisu at the University of Pennsylvania MAPP Alumni Magazine (winter 2014)
Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab, UC Berkeley (April 2015)
University of Pennsylvania ‘Sisu – Introduction to positive psychology’ (April 2015)
Accenture Finland (March 2015)
Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory (head of lab: Dr. James Gross) Stanford University (July 24th, 2014)
Research Methods and Stats class at University of Pennsylvania (guest presenter, Dec 6, 2013)
Angela Duckworth Lab, University of Pennsylvania (presentation, August 23, 2013)
The Third World Congress on Positive Psychology, L.A. (workshop, June 29, 2013)