What is Sisu?

Words make our worlds: Introducing Sisu

Adversities are a natural part of the human experience; what is it that enables us to persevere through hardships despite feeling we have reached the end of our capacities?

The 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 over 500 years and is still deeply embedded within Finnish culture. However, the concept has remained rather elusive and understudied. In the spring of 2013, as part of my Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I set out on a quest to uncover the deepest essence of sisu, and to examine it as a psychological strength capacity for the first time in its history.

The related on-line survey explored the cultural representations of sisu among 1,060 contemporary Finns (and Finnish Americans) and revealed that sisu is still deeply valued. Majority of the respondents also expressed the need for sisu to be discussed more in the media and education and work contexts. The respondents (83%) also believed that sisu is a capacity which can be cultivated through one´s conscious efforts (as opposed to being a fixed-type, genetic quality), and they we’re also interested in engaging in such activities.


The large number of respondents was an encouraging indicator of interest in the subject. The study, advised by MacArthur Fellow and researcher Dr. Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania, gained interest in both Finnish and American media. The study was featured by Suomen Kuvalehti (Susan Heikkinen 16.4.2013: Sisua tutkitaan juuri nyt –Yhdysvalloissa), YLE Puhe (Sisu on tulta ja tahtoa, 24.4.2013), The Running Times Magazine (5/2013) in the United States, and more recently it was featured in the prestigious Scientific American (Dr. Scott Kaufman: Are you Mentally Tough?, 19.3.2014). So far, the study has been presented at the 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology in Los Angeles (June 2013), at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania (August 2013) and at the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Summit in Philadelphia (October 2013). Furthermore, the research methods and results were presented in greater detail at Dr. Angela Duckworth’s Research Method’s and Statistics class at the University of Pennsylvania (December 2013).

Sisu as a psychological capacity refers to extraordinary determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of extreme stress or adversity. (Lahti, 2013)

Sisu is a powerful psychological potential which enables the individual to tap into mental strength beyond their pre-sisu begins where perseverance and grit end Emilia Lahti quote Finlandconceived resources when facing adversity, and to push through what first seemed like the boundaries of their mental or physical abilities. This further contributes to a broader behavioral approach what I call the action mindset; a consistent courageous take on challenges which far exceed our observed capacities. The term conveys the dynamic quality of sisu as an action-enabling strength capacity. Based on the survey data sisu and the action mindset seem to be especially useful in generating the impetus to tackle highly challenging tasks. Sisu provides the final empowering push when we would otherwise hesitate to act. Sisu can be conceptualized as taking action against the odds; metaphorically, it not only enables us to take the initial leap, step into thin air, but it also carries us forward. Furthermore, sisu also relates to keeping one´s word, being honest and standing up for one´s values. To me, sisu is more than just a word. It is a philosophy and a whole way of life.

Finland may have the first take on sisu as a cultural construct, but it is a universal capacity and the potential for it exists within all individuals. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of our language mean the limits of our world.” Only by having the words and constructs to describe the phenomena around us can we strive to describe it, and therefore to understand more and to become more. This is one of the main prerogatives of my work: to expand the realms of our language and thinking, and to thus transform the ways in which we can perceive our potential. Sisu is a new term in the field of positive psychology, and I propose it may contribute to our understanding of the determinants of resilience, post-traumatic growth, achievement, as well as the ‘good life.’.

Chris Ozer Emilia Lahti sisuFuture research on sisu will focus on exploring the uncharted terrain of this construct in different contexts from education to empowering individuals and igniting change but especially within the framework of helping survivors of any kind trauma. Right now we are communicating with researchers and experts working with a range of people from survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking to soldiers with PTSD and cancer patients. Ultimately, the purpose is that expanding our mind through action mindset and sisu, will lead to action and yield practical, empowering solutions that help alleviate human suffering and increase well-being on a global scale.

Still curious?

More information and articles can be found here and at the Sisu homepage. Furthermore, you can join the discussion at the Facebook Sisu community with over 2000 members, or just say hi to me on twitter.

SISU RESEARCH IN THE MEDIA 2013-2015

“In so many ways, words make our worlds. Only through having the language and constructs to describe the phenomena around us can we strive to interpret it, and therefore, to understand more and to be more. Indeed, one of the prerogatives of the work around sisu is to expand our language and thinking, and to thus transform the ways in which we perceive our opportunities.” Emilia Lahti (2013)

Summary of the current study can be found here: Words make our words: Introducing Sisu

INTERVIEWS & FEATURES AT ON-LINE PUBLICATIONS (selected)
Singularity University Hub: Technology Is the Great Amplifier of Our Humanity, an interview by Alison Berman (November 13, 2015)
Helsingin Sanomat NYT: Kun koneista tulee superälykkäitä… [an interview regarding singularity, futurism, exponential technology etc] November 30, 2015
Yle Uutiset: Mustikkaämpäriä ei jätetä tyhjäksi – Suomalainen sisu näkyy parhaiten arjessa (October 15, 2015)
Yle Oppiminen: Sisu on päättäväisyyttä mahdottomalta tuntuvan haasteen edessä (October 15, 2015)
Positive Psychology News Daily: An interview with Emilia Lahti – The Year of Sisu (March 2, 2015))
FORBES
: The Sisu Social: Can Finns Teach The World To Hang Tough? An interview by Giovanni Rodriquez (September 1, 2014)
Business Insider Sisu: This Untranslatable Finnish Word Takes Perseverance to a Whole New Level (by Drake Baer, June 17, 2014)** Over 50K ‘likes’
Sisu shout-out at Forbes (April 12, 2014)
The Creativity Post by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (May 23, 2014)
The Scientific American by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (March 19, 2014)
Mappalicious by Dr. Nico Rose (interview on March 9, 2014)
WholeMe Australia (interview on March 30, 2014)
Boulder Weekly by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (March 27, 2014)
Positive Prescription by Dr. Samantha Boardman (March 24, 2014)
Dr. Kathryn Welds Curated Research and Commentary (July 7, 2013)
YLE: Sisun sisin olemus (6.10.2014)
Suomen Kuvalehti (Emilia’s interview by Susan Heikkinen [in Finnish], April 16, 2013)
Ilkka “Mitä hyötyä on sisusta?” (April 11, 2013)

PRINT MEDIA INTERVIEWS (selected)
Gloria: Sisun kasvot [The Face of Sisu, an in-depth interview at the “Vogue of Finland” : D] (January 2016 issue)
Sport-magazine: Fitness spotlight (January 2016 issue)
Kauppalehti:
 Suomalaisnaiset matkalla tulevaisuuteen [The main business print magazine of Finland, an interview regarding the Singularity University](November 3, 2015)
Maailman Kuvalehti: Sisulla maailmalle (November issue 2015)
Iltalehti
: Sisu alkaa sieltä, missä sinnikkyys loppuu. Lisäksi Iltalehti kertoi itsenäisyyspäivän 35-sivuisessa sisu-ekstrassa 97 vuotiaan Suomen kunniaksi 97 tarinaa suomalaisesta sisusta (December 5, 2014)
Helsingin Sanomat Sisututkija: “Ei sisu tarkoita sitä, että bodaa pää punaisena kymmenen tuntia päivässä” (October 15, 2014)
Suomen Kuvalehti “Hän” Omat mustelmat sisuunnuttivat 42/2014
Running Times magazine (An in-depth interview at the Finnish equivalent of ‘TIME’ mag, print magazine 41/2014)

ACADEMIC PRESENTATIONS (selected)
Annual World Congress on Positive Psychology in Orlando, Florida: Presentation on sisu and courage together with Dr. Cindy Pury Sandström and Joshua Steinfeldt (June 29, 2015)
Singularity University GSP15: The Un-Conference: Introducing the Finnish Superpower of Sisu (June 2015)
University of Pennsylvania: Sisu and Grit – A class co-taught with Dr. Angela Duckworth as part of UPenn undergrad psychology courses (April 2015)
UC Berkeley Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab (April 2015)
Aalto University School of Science (lecture on sisu and the science of better thinking) 11.4.2015
University of Helsinki: Sisu and Post-traumatic Growth – a 90 min lecture part of the Helsinki open university course on positive psychology, in Finnish (October 15, 2014)
Stanford University Psychophysiology Lab: Sisu – Emotion Regulation X. Head of lab: Dr. James Gross (July 24th, 2014)
Sisu abstract accepted for presentation at the 7th European Conference on Positive Psychology, Amsterdam (July 1.-4, 2014
Spanish Conference on Positive Psychology: Poster on sisu (w/Dr. Merche Ovejero and Marta Velasquez at and Oropesa del Mar, Spain, (May 10, 2014)
University of Pennsylvania: Sisu at the Research Methods and Stats class (video, Dec 6, 2013)
Master of Applied Positive Psychology Summit at UPenn, PA (October 18, 2013)
Sisu at the Angela Duckworth Lab, University of Pennsylvania (presentation, August 23, 2013)
Annual World Congress on Positive Psychology in L.A. (workshop video, June 29, 2013)


NON-ACADEMIC PRESENTATION (selected)
Upcoming
The Finnish National Opera: Työn Lumo 2016! (April 19, 2016)
Business Coaching Institute of Finland, Helsinki (April 26, 2016)
Finlandia Foundation Bay Area (February 14, 2016)
Logitech HQ (private event) (February 18, 2016)

Past
The Finnish National Opera 9.12.2015
Twinkle 2015 (keynote speech at the opening of a two-day long business conference at the Tampere Hall 7.12.2015
TEDxTurku (host for the 4-hour long event that was broadcasted globally 3.12.2015
Business Coaching Institute Finland 22.10.2015
Sisu book launch event (keynote at the event with over 300 guests at Korjaamo) 15.10.2015
Savitaipaleen Sisu event (keynote) May 2015
Accenture Finland (an audience of 1,000+ people) 13.4 2015
Business Coaching Institute of Finland (workshop) 16.3.2015
Aller Media 28.2.2015
Rochier Law Group 21.10.2014

SELECTED VIDEOS AND TV APPEARANCES

YLE Areena: Live broadcast of hosting TEDxTurku 2015 (3.12.2015)
Yle Fem Efter Nio: 
Interview on sisu at Finland’s main Swedish speaking TV channel (9.3.2015)
YLE:n aamuTV:Sisututkija vastaa: Mistä sisukkuus syntyy? [An interview at Finland’s leading morning news show: What gives rise to sisu]
TEDxTurku: Sisu: Transforming Barriers into Frontiers (4.12.2014)
MTV3 aamu: Arjen sisukkuus innostaa sisututkijaa (TV, 21.11.2014)
Arka paikka: HSTV:n suora videohaastattelu by Anja Snellman (TV, 19.11.2014)
Elisheva TV (video interview on May 27, 2014)
The Int. UN Day of Happiness conference with UPenn MAPP Alumni (March 20, 2014)

RADIO
Radio Nova: What is sisu? (with Sonja Strömsholm) [in Finnish] (25.10.2015)
Yle Radio Suomi: Interview on the new Sisu-book [in Finnish] (15.10.2015)
Radio Rapu: Talks about the year of sisu together with Sonja Strömsholm[in Finnish] (5.3.2015)
YleX Etusivu
: Onko suomalaisen suurin riesa sisu, sisututkija Emilia Lahti? (radio, 5.11.2014)
Yle Puheen iltapäivä: Suomalainen sisu ei ole kadonnut minnekaan  (3.11.2014)
YLE1: Roman Schatzin Maamme-kirja: Sisun sisin olemus w/Dr. Aki-Mauri Huhtinen (radio, 6.10.2014)
KZUM 89.3 Community Matters (live radio interview with Nick Hernandez, Dec 30, 2013)
YLE Puhe (radio talk show in Finnish, E. Lahti interview on April 24, 2013)

BOOKS
Positive Psychologists on Positive Psychology vol. 3. (Feb 2016)
Sisu: Tarinoita itsensä ylittämisestä ja yhdessä tekemisestä (PS-kustannus,2015)
Positiivisen psykologian voima (2014) PS-Kustannus [The power of positive psychology]. One of the first positive psychology books written in Finnish. Includes a 25-page long chapter on sisu.
Positive Psychologists on Positive Psychology vol. 2. (December 2013)

SOCIAL MEDIA EXTRAS
Sisu playlist on Spotify: Running on Sisu by Emilia
The Sisu Lab YouTube Channel featuring:
TED talks – The Sisu Playlist
The Sisu Mouse video

The Sisu Lab on Pinterest for your ‘visual Prozac needs’ : ) (January 2014)
Sisu on Wikipedia (updated January 2014)

OTHER
Sisu as a psychological capacity is currently part of at least three new international books published by major publishing houses in the US (two scheduled to come out in 2015 and one in 2016).

Sisu and vitality conference poster at the Spanish conference on applied positive psychology (spring 2014)

What does sisu mean to you by Park Cofield at Sisu is in the heart (28.2.2015)
Sisu: Beyond Perseverance
by Marta Velázquez Gil at the Positive Psychology News Daily (this is brilliant – read it : ) December 15, 2014)

On the Occasion of Finland’s National Day (US Secretary of State John Kerry on Finland and Sisu). Helsingin Sanomat: Yhdysvaltain ulkoministeri John Kerry – Suomalainen sisu on esimerkki kaikille.

“Sisua putkeen, niin eiköhän tästäkin selvitä.” -Presidentti Sauli Niinistö 6.12.2014 (linkki juttuun).

Sisu: How To Develop Mental Toughness In The Face Of Adversity by James Clear at Business Insider (24.10.2014)
YLE Puhe by Dr. Esa Saarinen (a generous shout-out to sisu 2.0 at 0:25:15, Dec 11, 2013)
Ajattelun ammattilainen “Sisun uusi aalto” (Dr. Lauri Järvilehto, Nov. 10, 2013)
Annual NPEA Conference by Dr. Angela Duckworth (in her presentation on “True Grit: Why Effort is a as Important as Talent” (April 11, 2013)
Grit and Sisu at Women in Astronomy/ MIT by Dr.  (July 8, 2013)
Hapacus Blog by Bob Pothier “What we learned at the IPPA World Congress” (July 2013)
Finding Sisu by Adam Chase for the Running Times Magazine (Feb 19, 2013)
Sisu: The Finnish for “Stiff Upper Lip? in The History of Emotions Blog by Dr. Tuomas Tepora (October 30, 2012)
The Finnish Line. Some curious and rather insightful reflections on sisu at The Washington Post (March 26, 2006)

GROUPS
Sisu is in the Heart: An international community-based theater project spearheaded by Park Cofield
Sisu Project: A group of runners with sisu and true action mindset. New Haven, MA.
Next Step Fitness – Non-profit organization that brings the latest in fitness innovation, health and wellness to individuals living with paralysis and other physical disabilities. Los Angeles, CA.

Updated December 30, 2015

10 thoughts on “What is Sisu?

  1. I have found many web sites explaining what SISU is but unfortunately none explain how to develop it. That were the real value is.

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    1. Hi Samson! Yeap, I know and you are absolutely right. That’s exactly why sisu is such a wonderful PhD topic. I’m beginning my research this year and it is actually the first time sisu is researched as a psychological capacity : ) You can hopefully expect to see applications (including a sisu scale) within a few years or so!

      Thanks so much for the great comment.

      Warmly,
      Emilia

      Like

  2. Hello. I am 100% Finnish-American. All my people came from Finland. It was understpood, SISU, was a quality we were possessed of, all of us, born into or adopted into this Finnish clan, along with fierce love and loyalty celebrated with a joy of life that I’ve not found anywhere else. SISU to me, is guts, bravery, perserverance, and that indefinable something that gets you there. When I was just 19 yo, I was terribly hurt. My parents drove all night to stand at my bedside in ICU to Re mind me that I had SISU, that I was a new bride, that I was to give them grandchildren (a totally ridiculous concept given the shape I was in), every ten minutes on the hour, visiting hours in those days. Each time it seemed I became more resolute. To make a long story short, I didn’t die, did perservere, gave them two half Finnish grandchildren who have grown to brilliant adults with an abundance of SISU. I am endlessly grateful and alive these years! Disabled now but still here and going! Thank you for your research. Bless you.

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    1. Sweet Kristine, Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so happy you have found that inner, indomitable life force within you that will help carry you through even the toughest of days.

      Shine on, badass lady <3 (and thank you for being such a delightful member of our little community).

      Like

  3. I have never heard this term . I am an RN in my older years now. Last week my daughters friend left Il. ! With her best support fruend, said her goodbyes to family and took off on her last ditch effort to save her life from cancer disease she had been fighting for several years . She left Americas common cancer treatments long ago and developed her own holistic approach. During her struggles her son also developed an inopperable tumor ! She died last week shortly after she started a rare healing process outside America .. during her struggles her family lost everything they owned but continued the battle with love and support from many people ! Ill never understand the thinking of tgese kind of people ! Her letters of good bye shou I d be in a book . I only met her once , but after today I think she had SISU. Ill be thinking about this powerful word ! Is it a noun or an adjective ?

    Like

    1. Dear Roberta,

      Thank you for your very heartfelt message. I’m so very sorry to hear about your daughter’s friend and her (and her family’s) struggle. The human capacity to overcome hardships and summon strength in the face of adversity is indeed enormous (not that we’re limitless). It is often the very presence of a grand challenge that calls forth such extraordinary strength that we couldn’t have imagined owning, and which we wouldn’t have access to under ordinary circumstances. You, me and every person has the potential to overcome slim odds… this was the topic of Ulrika Bjärkstam’s recent TEDx https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uc_Tq9jlqB0 (you may like this as it relates to your ideas).

      Thank you for reading the blog and leaving a comment. Please let me know if you have any questions or if our community can be of help <3
      W/sisu and peace, Emilia

      Like

  4. I’m sure that you’re familiar with the Keweenaw Peninsula. The area had the largest population of Finns outside of Finland. To observe Sisu in action, just visit the area…in February.

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