Stories from Mental Challenges

The Meaning of Sisu, the Finnish Concept of Resilience, and How It Will Help You Better Cope in Stressful Times

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceApril 14, 2020

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In 2017, people in the wellness world and beyond got super into hygge, the Danish art of practicing all things cozy. Considering all the forced indoor time happening right now, hygge—with all its oversized blankets, candles, and comfort—just may be what helps make social distancing a little more bearable.

But there’s another Nordic concept, from Denmark’s neighbor, Finland, that just may play a bigger part in helping you get through these trying times: sisu, which is translated to “resilience” or “perseverance.” Resilience, of course, means the ability to adapt to recover from change or misfortune. The Finnish concept of sisu takes that definition one step further—it’s about never giving up, no matter what you’re going through.

“The definition of sisu has changed over time,” explains Justyn Barnes, whose book, Sisu: Find Your Resilience the Finnish Way, came out last month. “In the 1500s, which is the first time the word was used, it was tied to the idea of being gutsy. Over time, it’s become to be more of a mindset; having a resilient mindset.”

Resilience isn’t just a way to get through tough stuff though; it’s also a key foundation of mental health and well-being. A 2018 review of studies found that patients with health issues who exhibited more resilience were also more likely to have better mental health. It seems to work for Finland: Despite being cold and gray for most of the year, Finland is consistently ranked the number one happiest country in the world.

Of course, it’s one thing to know about resiliency and quite another to put it into practice—especially when humanity is facing an unprecedented global health and economic crisis. Below, Barnes shares three concrete ways to truly embrace the meaning of sisu in your every day life:

1. Lengthen your stride to push your limits (within reason)

Barnes explains that the idea of lengthening your stride is the Finnish idea of pushing yourself just a bit father than you think you can go. “I applied it to my own life when I had to write a book in just a few months,” Barnes says. He pushed his daily word count goal a few hundred more than he previously thought he could do. In doing so, he accomplished his daily goals and in turn, met his book deadline on time. He also kept the concept in mind when training for a half marathon, running just a little farther than he thought he could each time he went for a long run.

“The way lengthening your stride connects to sisu is because it can be applied to when you feel physically or mentally exhausted, too,” he says. “It’s this idea that you have a hidden reserve that can help you push through whatever you’re doing through.”

This doesn’t mean that you have to burn the candle at both ends or burn yourself out trying to get everything done. Rather, it’s about finding small ways to push yourself past what you *think* you can do, even if it’s taking a few more steps inside than you normally would, or challenging yourself to do one more rep for each move of your indoor workout. Knowing that you can do more than what you think is possible will help you be more prepared to face difficult times with confidence that you can get through it.

2. Practice ‘educated optimism’

We’re not talking here about blind optimism, or believing that something will work out no matter what. (Cue the “It could happen!” kid from Angels in the Outfield.) In Finland, Barnes says educated optimism is more the norm. “Educated optimism is based in realism and is used to help build a realistic plan toward accomplishing goals,” he says. “It means looking at the situation, no matter how bad it is, and acknowledging the reality of what’s happening. Then, you figure out how to move forward.” Having a plan, Barnes says, can help lower anxiety because it lays the blueprint of how you’ll make it through, and it’s grounded in realism, not wishful thinking.

One part of educated optimism, Barnes says, is drawing on past experience. Looking back at difficult times you have made it through in the past (such as job loss, a rough breakup, or illness) can serve as reminder that you’re tougher than you may realize. It can also help you better navigate your current situation.

3. Stay calm in the storm

Going hand-in-hand with the idea of educated optimism is staying calm in the storm, or not letting emotions drive actions or decisions. “One trait associated with sisu is stoicism, and often I think you need a dose of stoicism to be resilient and push through,” Barnes says. “Staying calm in the storm means doesn’t mean being unfeeling, but it does mean taking a step back and giving a situation a calm, rational look.”

The idea is that taking a breath (or 10) before getting worked up about something will lead to clearer thinking about help put a plan in place that will help you push through a hard time.

While the concept of sisu has long been around, it’s especially timely right now, when uncertainty and anxiety are hard to escape. “There’s eight months of darkness in Finland, but sisu is the reminder that spring will come,” Barnes says. “It’s the hopefulness of knowing that if you keep going, you will make it through.”

If everything surrounding COVID-19 has you feeling sad, here’s some tips. And remember, virtual therapy is always an option, too.

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