Sisu, (pronounced see-su), a special kind of fortitude that emerges when you have passed the point of what you think you can bear and yet you go on with courage, dignity and adaptability. It is a concept that is often defined as the quality that emerged amongst the Finns during the Winter War, the war between Finland and Soviet Russia at the start of world war 2, where the Finns were required to resist overwhelming numbers and appalling conditions to defend their border. Sisu is resilience on steroids, but it is also something a bit more than just resilience. Sisu is a concept that is thought to define the national character of Finland, it means guts but it is more than just that literal translation, it is associated with fierce independence and self-sufficiency.
I recently read Katja Pantzar’s Finding Sisu – in search of courage, strength and happiness the Finnish way, a book that seeks to define the Finnish answer to the question of life the universe and everything, a kind of self-help expose on the elements that define Finnish national character and success and how you can utilise those elements to find happiness, health and simplicity in your own life. Given that Finland is the happiest country in the world according to the 2019 happiness report, the Finns are clearly doing something right. A national philosophy based on engagement with nature no matter what the weather and simplicity in other areas of life is something that intrinsically appeals to me, so sisu is my word of the year and for that matter my word of the decade. And after reading Pantzar’s book I am following her advice on finding my sisu. In essence:
Get outside, often and in any weather: Engagement with the natural world is great for your physical and mental health, this is something that a considerable amount of current research is now confirming. Things like walks in forests can lower blood pressure, counter depression, improve immunity and make you more alert. Like the Japanese, the Finns have a strong relationship with forest environments and the benefits of forest bathing. In Finland there is no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing, so no matter what your age you should get out there in nature, rain or snow and enjoy the benefits it brings.
“In our research, stories and anecdotes from ordinary people have stressed how important the forest is for them as a source of mental and physical well being. People have sent me letters with accounts of how the woodlands have helped them to recover from depression, for example,’ she says. For Finns, the forest is akin to a church or temple.” (p.125)
Exercise often and in everyday ways like riding a bike to work or the shops. Exercise is not something you need to payout big gym memberships for, riding a bike in all weather also helps the environment, lowers your carbon footprint and keeps you closer to nature. I had already planned to invest in a new bike this year, that is a topic for another post, but riding a bike to get to work and do the smaller grocery shops is already on my current plan. Toowoomba is very hilly so I am considering spoiling myself and investing in an e-bike.
Pantzar suggests that doing chores you might outsource is also part of the sisu ethic. Take pride in doing your own housework or gardening, it saves money and also gives you incidental exercise. I sometimes wish I could outsource household chores but alas I don’t have that luxury, maybe I can learn to be enthusiastic about housework.
Swim in icy lakes or sea, well it never really gets that cold here in Australia and I have gone swimming in the winter months before, but I am excited to embrace the practice of a cold if not icy swim, like walks in the forest/bush, cold swimming can help with depression, stress and fatigue. Pantzar points out you don’t have to throw yourself into icy waters and proceed to do an extended swim. You can start slow, just easing yourself into the water and spend as little as 30 seconds in the water before retreating to the Sauna.
Sauna, now I don’t know if I have access to a sauna in Toowoomba, I have used them in the past and can vouch for the comforting warmth and informality of the Sauna, I must explore what my options are. In Finland, the sauna tradition contributes to a more positive body image and less stress over appearance.
Eat Simply and naturally and don’t obsess or overthink your eating. Eat more berries and mushrooms, although I don’t know that I would trust my mushroom knowledge to safely forage for wild mushrooms. Simple, natural eating with a preponderance of fruit and veg, that I can do and the benefits are pretty self-evident these days with diet being linked to mental health as well as physical health.
Minimalism – reject materialism and reduce, reuse, recycle. Simplifying life and rejecting the materialist ethic that is responsible for so many of our environmental and social problems is something that I happily embrace. I have been re-discovering the fun of op-shopping and the challenge of finding solutions for a need that does not involve buying more stuff. When I do buy something new I try to get something that will last, opting for simple timeless design and quality.
In our house books are the one item we do tend to purchase a lot of. I know I need to try and use the library more. I love bookshops and am only to happy to support what are these days struggling small businesses. I love the knowledge and bookish camaraderie you get in bookshops and the pleasure of the serendipitous find. Buying books is the one materialist action I struggle to surrender but I also support some wonderful second-hand bookshops, here in Toowoomba the lifeline bookshop at the range shopping centre is an absolute treasure trove and always my first port of call when looking for an older title. Books for me are an essential of that other Nordic word of the moment hygge.
So after a chilly walk, bike ride or swim you can snuggle down with a good book and a bowl of berries, and enjoy a bit of hygge in reward for your sisu. If you are seeking a bit more than just comfort from Nordic culture than reading Katja Pantzar’s Finding Sisu – in search of courage, strength and happiness the Finnish way might be just what you are looking for.
Given that so much of Finding Sisu focused on outdoor activities and nature I will add this title to my Gaia reading challenge titles.