Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 16 December 2018

Forget Hygge, get ready for Sisu: Are you tough enough for the latest Nordic trend?

The Snowflake generation has been singled out and ridiculed for their lack of coping skills, but couldn't we all benefit from learning to be more resilient? Here, Katie Byrne explores the Finnish concept of sisu - the mystical power to push through hardship until you reach success - that may be key to mental wellbeing

Cork Explorer Pat Falvey leads workplace resilience seminars
Cork Explorer Pat Falvey leads workplace resilience seminars

Saunas, Stieg Larsson, IKEA... the Nordic countries have bestowed many gifts on the world. In the last few years, however, their exports have become rather less tangible.

First we had hygge, the Danish lifestyle philosophy that made life there sound like one long duvet day. Next came lagom, a shorter-lived trend that advocated the Swedish watchwords of moderation, judiciousness and never, ever eating an entire pizza.

Mental strength: Finding Susu author Katja Pantzar
Mental strength: Finding Susu author Katja Pantzar

It would seem as though we're perilously close to peak Nordic, but publishing calendars tell a different story. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which deconstructs the Swedish cleaning phenomenon known as döstädning, arrived in bookshops in October, while in March, Finding Sisu will introduce the wider world to a construct that defines Finland's national spirit.

There is no English equivalent for sisu although the words resilience, fortitude and perseverance are often used to explain it. Finnish researcher Emilia Lahti, who discussed the cultural concept at the World Congress of Positive Psychology in 2013, describes it as "the enigmatic power that enables individuals to push through unbearable hardships".

The late Finnish writer Sakari Pälsi said sisu gives the Finns the courage to take on long odds and overcome major obstacles. "When it gets tough," he wrote, "the sisu says: it looks impossible but let's still try. And then we try - and we win."

For Dublin-born artist, Jane Hughes, who lives and works in Helsinki, sisu is a "cultural attitude of getting on with things with a passionate determination".

"The concept was explained to me by my Finnish boyfriend as not giving up no matter what, that you will do what you say you will do [and] to persist despite everything."

Jane has witnessed plenty of examples of sisu while living in Finland, especially among fellow artists who are running galleries and making large-scale projects happen on shoestring budgets. "I even have a Finnish artist friend who regularly rows a row boat to her studio on Harakka island until the sea freezes over, despite the bitterly cold and extremely harsh weather conditions and complete darkness."

Sisu can also be translated as 'guts' (sisu comes from the word sisus, meaning interior, or the entrails of a body), but for Dublin-based Finnish psychotherapist, Lilli Klint, that description is much too general.

"You could say that there is more of a mystical quality [to sisu]," she says. "It has to do with perseverance and courage as well, but it is something that you can sustain."

Lilli, who moved to Ireland 18 years ago, thinks the concept of sisu is best described in a story from a trilogy of treasured Finnish folklore.

"It's about this man - a strong and silent type - who is trying to turn a swamp into a field on which he can grow food for his beloved. He has to show that he can do that before he can propose."

Sisu, then, might be described as a sort of superpower or, as Emilia puts it, "a universal potential that exists within all individuals".

Sisu is the reserve that working parents tap into when a child gets sick and a work deadline looms. It's the second wind that allows you to literally or figuratively run an extra mile. It is a reminder that we are stronger than we realise and, for Katja Pantzar, author of Finding Sisu, it is the secret of mental wellbeing.

The Finnish-born writer was raised and educated in Canada where she battled bouts of anxiety and depression, but it was only when she returned to Finland that she discovered an unlikely all-natural treatment.

Katja began to cultivate the spirit of sisu and, coupled with a Nordic diet and more outdoor time, she soon experienced a transformation in her health and happiness.

If you're looking for another How to Hygge, look elsewhere. You won't find recipes for hot chocolate or photographs of sheepskin rugs and crackling fires in Finding Sisu. It's a no-nonsense book - part-memoir, part self-help - which builds on the idea that resilience is a cornerstone of mental wellbeing.

The book's entry to the self-help market is well timed. The art of bouncing back has become a hot topic in positive psychology circles while resilience training has become increasingly popular in schools and workplaces.

Former bricklayer-turned-adventurer, Pat Falvey, who showed remarkable sisu when he silenced the naysayers and climbed Everest, now leads workplace resilience seminars around the world.

"Resilience, to me, is all about the belief in yourself and your mindset," he says. "Most companies take the resilience out of people because they restrict them and curtail their self-leadership.

"Micro-managing is becoming a huge problem," he continues, "so I'm trying to get companies to have belief in their people - and cultivate a just-go-for-it attitude."

Resilience is also lacking in younger people, according to Cat Hughes, Research Manager with Pieta House, and designer of the organisation's Resilience Academy for 2nd year students.

"I think that most people, of any age, don't bounce back quickly because we generally aren't given the skills to know how," she says.

"We aren't taught to pay attention to our thinking style or to pay attention to the physical impact of our emotions.

"Everyone needs to have skills to help them understand and handle challenging emotions, to help them adapt their thoughts to manage stress and worry, and even to look for help when they need it."

Psychologist Shane Martin, another advocate for a culture of resilience in school communities, agrees. "There are teenagers who do great in their Leaving Cert - getting over 500 points - but they crumble to pieces over the first setback during the first term of university," he says.

"Similarly, some people will become depressed after being made redundant and some will find another job and get a promotion. Some people will get their heart broken and disconnect from life for the rest of their days and others will find new love. "How come there are people who can sustain the pressure and there are people that take a mental health hit?" he asks.

While schools around the world are beginning to incorporate resilience lessons into their curriculums, the Finnish curriculum cultivates resilience and self-reliance by its very design. Vocational lessons and outdoor activities are preferred to rote learning, and health and safety rules don't dampen the spirit of adventure.

Educational psychologist and author of How Monsters Wish to Feel, Juliette Ttofa, says educators could learn from their approach.

"I think any construct that encourages the education system to allow children and young people more freedom to play and to connect with nature has to be a good thing for their mental health and emotional wellbeing," she says.

"Some adversity and planned risk can be positive to an individual's overall social-emotional development as it can enable young people to show others their mettle - 'what they are made of'. As the saying goes, 'Calm seas do not a good sailor make.'"

For her own part, Lilli remembers being brought up with the attitude of, 'If you fall off a horse, get right back on it'.

She says sisu helped her persevere with her psychotherapy training, but she is wary of allowing it to inform her work with clients as it is far from a "one-size-fits-all" philosophy.

Sisu, she says, can work for Finnish people just as it can work against them.

"The word sisu is so evocative for us Finns and it's certainly part of our psychological makeup, for better and for worse! It can convey a sense of single-mindedness and just doing stuff, until you collapse of emotional exhaustion.

"That attitude is not the way forward," she adds. "There has to be an exploration of motivations behind your actions to make the most of sisu."

She thinks back to the story about the man who turned the swamp into a field. "He dies of a broken heart."


Shane Martin agrees. "One of the most important skills of resilient people is emotional awareness," he says. "Sometimes people don't know how they feel or they don't have the language to describe their emotions."

In other words, sisu may help us push past our fears, but the strongest people of all know how to embrace their vulnerability, too.

How to cultivate sisu

Take stock: Look back at the times when you overcame the odds or pushed past your comfort zone. You've done it before so you can do it again.

Feel the fear: Do something that scares you every now and again. It will build your confidence and courage, which will in turn cultivate your sisu.

Don't take no for an answer: Start thinking of 'no' as the beginning of a negotiation, not the end of a conversation.

Take a break: If you're close to throwing in the towel, take a break and use the time to reassess the situation and look at it from a different perspective.

Tap into your reserve: Get up half an hour earlier; persevere with a project for half an hour longer. Run one mile as fast as you can and, afterwards, turn the shower setting to cold for the last few seconds. These harder, better, faster, stronger hacks will increase your mental strength.

Put one foot in front of the other: Keep going.

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