Marta Velázquez Gil graduated in psychology from Complutense University of Madrid. Her major topics of interest are clinical psychology and within positive psychology, resilience, grit, courage, mindfulness, and cross-cultural well-being. Her biggest interest is sisu, a Finnish term for the fortitude and spirit which enables people to push through unbearable challenges. Marta's articles appeared here originally on the Spanish language site. Translations into English appear here.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Spanish-language edition of Positive Psychology News and translated by the author into English. We celebrate the movement of articles in this direction!
Last June 29th, 2013, at the Third World Congress on Positive Psychology, there were many symposia and workshops to choose from. A friend recommended that we attend a specific one about sisu. I had never heard this term, so my curiosity was aroused.Many times in life we encounter challenges that we need to face with bravery and determination. For many people, this can be the beginning of a long season of resistance and endurance. But when we face moments in which we feel that we have reached the end of our capacities see only an endless need for bravery and persistence going forward, a special strength is needed, an internal strength.
Sisu is a 500-year old Finnish construct, which appeals to the spirit and strength that enable people to persevere through difficulties despite feeling they have reached the end of their physical or mental capacities. According to Emilia Lahti, sisu is the ability to endure significant stress while taking action against seemingly impossible odds and extreme adversity. Sisu is what we depend on when we have nothing left. It provides us with the final empowering push, when we would otherwise hesitate to act.
Lahti carried on the first study on sisu in 2013 as part of her master’s capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania, under Angela Duckworth’s mentorship. She created an on-line survey that was answered by 1,060 Finns and Finnish Americans.Results showed that 62% of respondents conceived of sisu as a reserve of psychological power which enables taking action to overcome a mentally or physically challenging situation, rather than the ability to pursue long-term goals persistently.
To the question whether respondents think some people have sisu inherently and others don’t, 82% answered that some people do inherently have sisu. Fifty participants who responded affirmatively to this question added a written remark indicating they thought that sisu could also arise out of life experiences and that it could be created through the dynamic interplay between innate character and social environment.
Results also showed that 83% of respondents considered that sisu could be cultivated through conscious effort, rather than being something outside of their control. Additionally, 54% thought individuals can have too much sisu. Some of its negative consequences include hurting oneself by facing adversities beyond one’s physical limitations, stubbornness, and inflexible thinking.
58% of the respondents wished to have more sisu. In a choice between having more sisu or more intelligence, 36% chose sisu while 43% chose greater intelligence. The more education participants had, the more likely they preferred being more intelligent to having more sisu (N=1.060, p<.01).Sisu exists within all individuals
One main finding was that sisu is conceived as a psychological capacity, unlike a trait. Thus the question is not who has sisu and who does not, but how to cultivate it. The potential for sisu exists within all individuals.
How can we cultivate sisu? What strategies can be used to develop it? The truth is that we don’t know yet, but this is one of the purposes of future research around this construct. So far, what we know is that 83% of respondents in Lahti’s initial study think that sisu can be cultivated through conscious effort
Different from Grit
When I understood what sisu was about, it reminded me of grit. However, although both constructs have an apparent similarity, there are connotations that distinguish them.
While grit is perseverance and passion for long-term goals, sisu arises independently of passion. Also, sisu is not about goals achievement but about facing challenges with bravery and determination. So, we could also point out that sisu has a short-term component, unlike grit which is primarily long-term.Another difference is that grit entails working toward challenges maintaining effort and interest despite failure and adversity. It does not required a critical incident to initiate it, as happen in the case of sisu. Sisu appears when we have nothing left. According to Lahti, “Sisu begins where perseverance and grit end.”
Sisu can be confused with other constructs, for example, courage. Sisu can be thought of as the source of courage. In metaphorical terms, imagine wanting to climb a mountain and being at its foot. The inclination to climb is sisu, while taking each step is courage.
Sisu has not a literal translation into other languages. However, there are cultural terms that appeal to the same spirit that sisu is concerned.
From the Spanish culture, there is rasmia. The term rasmia originates from Aragón and Navarra, and it refers to the tenacity and push to undertake an objective. In other cultures, there are similar terms, such ganbaru in Japanese.
Sisu is found at the end of our comfort zone
Sisu refers to the idea of stand up after repeated failures and persevere, and according to Lahti, it not only enables us to take the initial leap, but also carries us forward. But, what are the moments in which we have to resorting to our sisu? We have to resort to our sisu when for example:
- You have 6 miles left to complete a marathon, and you feel that you can’t make another step.
- You feel like you have done everything you can to achieve a goal but you have not achieved it yet.
- You are preparing to lift a weight heavier than any you have raised before.
- A long season of resistance and endurance seems endless.
A Sisu Story
Sisu is apparent in the story of Kayla Montgomery. Kayla knows that strength doesn’t come from physical capacity, but from an unbreakable will.
At the age of 14, Kayla was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that disrupts nerve signals in her body. Nowadays, she is one of the top long distance young runners in America despite her disease causing her a total numbness in her legs when she runs.
Kayla says, “It’s difficult to live with a disease where your own body’s fighting against you, so when I’m running I feel like I’m battling that, I feel like I’m safe from myself.”
Kayla has promised to continue running for as long as she can despite these seemingly insurmountable odds.
You can watch a documentary on Kayla by clicking here.Looking at the future
Nowadays, Emilia Lahti as part of her upcoming Ph.D. is developing and validating a scale for measuring sisu. Future research on sisu will focus on exploring the construct in various contexts from education and work to individual empowerment and social change.
In its early stages sisu is explored especially within the framework of helping trauma survivors. It seeks to ultimately create practical applications that help alleviate human suffering and increase well-being on a global scale.
Sisu enables people to keep on even when the desired outcome seems unattainable. It encourages “what could be” thinking. Sometimes, against all odds, against all logic, we still keep going.
View Emilia Lahti’s TEDx Talk on YouTube
Clear, J. (2014). How To Develop Mental Toughness In The Face Of Adversity. Business Insider. Discusses the winter war in Finland in in 1939.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D. & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. doi: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1247
Kaufman, S. B. (2014). Are You Mentally Tough? Scientific American.
Lahti, E. (2013). Above and Beyond Perseverance: An Exploration of Sisu. (Master´s capstone). University of Pennsylvania. Abstract.
Lahti, E. (2014). Above and Beyond Perseverance. MAPP Alumni Magazine.
Lahti, E. (2014). How you can make success out of any failure. Fulfillment Daily.
Lahti, E. (2013). The Brilliance of a Dream: Introducing the Action Mindset. The Creativity Post.
Lahti, E. (2013). Words make our worlds: Introducing Sisu. The Creativity Post.
Velázquez, M., Lahti, E. y Ovejero, M. (2014). Sisu y sentido vital: primeros indicadores en la cultura española. Poster presented on the Second Spanish Congress on Positive Psychology.
Storm coming courtesy of courtesy of Pablo Fernández
Facing the storm courtesy of courtesy of Pablo Fernández
Sisu in all individuals courtesy of Pablo Fernández
Mountain view courtesy of Martin Chen
End of comfort zone courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Looking at the future courtesy of Pablo Fernández