Sisu: How Finnish Determination Can Teach Us to Persevere (+3 Tips)

Finnish Soldiers
Finnish Soldiers in the Winter War, Retrieved by URL. Courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0

The Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939. It was a violent attack, with some 350 bombs dropping from Soviet planes over Helsinki. By March 1940, the Soviet Union signed a peace treaty. 

How was it that one of the greatest superpowers in the world signed a peace treaty with a tiny nation within a matter of months? Sisu. 

During that Winter War in 1939 and 1940, there were three times as many Soviet soldiers than Finnish soldiers during the Winter War. Yet the Finnish persevered. 

This Finnish trait called “Sisu” drove a determined battle against the Soviet armed forces that winter. 


Explaining the Concept of Sisu

According to Masten (2009), Sisu is historically recognized as a Finnish character trait. It is similar to Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit. 

Sisu does not have an exact translation in English but can be interpreted as strong self-determination, or a “mental toughness” to obstacles. This trait is considered an integral part of the Finnish culture and collective discourse.

Sisu can be considered a human quality, and one that is expressed when acting with fortitude and confidence despite hurdles and repeated failures. Sisu can also be considered synonymous with self-control and effective stress management skills.


The Power of Sisu for Psychological Potential  

While Sisu has been studied by Finnish and Finnish American researchers, there has been little evidence supporting its development as a psychological construct (Taramaa, 2007). 

Fortunately, recent research conducted by Emilia Lahti (2013) and Rockind and Lati (2013) explored Sisu as a concept within positive psychology and uncovered its potential as a powerful psychological characteristic.

Sisu was presented as a resourceful psychological quality at the 3rd World Congress of Positive Psychology.  

Key evidence from this research indicates that to develop Sisu as a quality, people need opportunities to thrive in tough situations so that they can develop the ability to push themselves beyond their comfort level (Lahti, 2013).

Through challenging experiences, people internalize the necessary resources for resilience to use in later challenging circumstances.

“Sisu isn’t just a thought in our head. It is how we orientate our mind towards these situations: Are we able to endure, persevere, and grow, or are we limited by the situation we are in?” – Lahti, 2013

Another important aspect of Sisu is the ability to engage our efforts during tough situations toward forward-thinking and determined action that ensures our success, rather than focusing only on the problem and its solutions. 


3 Tips to Develop Sisu

According to Lahti (2013), there are three points to consider when developing our Sisu:

1. Long Distance Running

Many goals in life require a struggle over many years, rather than short-term efforts with quick results. This is a real test; despite negative emotions and a desire to give up, we maintain our determination and self-confidence. Long distance running is an everyday example where we can test and learn how to acquire our Sisu.

2. Identify and Reflect on Our Moments of Sisu

Everyone has a different script in their life. We all could benefit from developing our self-awareness to identify our own expression of Sisu, when Sisu happens for us, and how we can harness it for the future. Through this kind of reflection, we can determine our approach to overcoming odds and strengthen our determination along with our willpower.

3. Learn from History

There is huge value in learning from the success stories of others. Find examples in history where people achieve the impossible through sheer determination and strength of mind. Just by considering the feats of others, we can discover the vast range of avenues people have taken to reach their goals and utilize their Sisu. 


What Sisu Teaches Us

Harsh conditions and misfortunes are an inevitable part of life.

Sisu is a strength that makes it possible for us to sustain ourselves through these tough circumstances, and then take the essential steps towards our goals. It is the element which helps us to keep going and believe in our ability to reach success.

We are all capable of greatness. Through harnessing the power of Sisu we can overcome our greatest obstacles and tap into the resources we need to achieve our goals.

Here is a bit of wisdom to get you started on your journey, from the great minister and activist MLK:

“If you can’t fly then run. If you cant run then walk. If you can’t walk then crawl but whatever you do, keep moving forward.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

What are other times in history where Sisu brought peace and resolution? What role do you think Sisu has today? We would love to hear your ideas in our comments section below.   


Want to Know More?

You can review the latest research being performed by Emilia Lahti and colleagues at the SisuLab

 Masten, Ann S. (2009). “Ordinary Magic: Lessons from Research on Resilience in Human Development”Education Canada, 49 (3), pp. 28–32.

Taramaa, R. (2007). “Stubborn and Silent Finns with ‘Sisu’ in Finnish-American Literature: An Imagological Study of Finnishness in the Literary Production of Finnish-American Authors (Ph.D. thesis). Acta Universitatus Oulu. Oulu: Oulu University Press.

Lahti, E. (2013). “Sisu Is a Universal Potential Within All Individuals”. Sisu Social: Transforming Barriers into Frontiers.

Rockind, C. & Lahti, E. (2013). “WK 17 How to Find the ‘Why’ of Life: A Research-Based Process to Uncover One’s Purpose and Find Meaning in Life”. Third World Congress on Positive Psychology: Final Program. Los Angeles: International Positive Psychology Association. p.108.

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