The sisu ethic

Text by Katja Pantzar. Photography by Mikko Ryhänen.

Sisu, the newest Nordic lifestyle buzzword to trend internationally, refers to a special quality of Finnish fortitude and resilience that has been a way of life in Finland for centuries. Not only does it mean tackling life’s challenges head first—even when they can seem impossible—but a good sense of sisu can set you up for trying daring physical activities, such as ice swimming, that can boost your well-being. A sisu attitude is about not taking the easy way out and can be applied to all areas of life, including embracing a sustainable consumption ethic that favours choosing quality over quantity.

When I moved to Finland many years ago, I came across this unique Finnish concept called sisu. While I understood it to mean a special strength or grit in the face of great challenges or adversity, I was keen to find out more about the concept, which is often associated with great feats.

Katja Pantzar is a Helsinki-based writer, editor and broadcast journalist. Raised in Canada, with stints in England and New Zealand, her newest book Finding Sisu: In Search of Courage, Strength and Happiness the Finnish Way (Hodder & Stoughton) has just been published in the UK, Germany, and the US, with eighteen other territories to follow.

The most popular historical examples of sisu feature great resilience against all odds, such as Finland’s victory over the Soviet Union when it retained its sovereignty after the Winter War.

The conflict began in November 1939 with the Soviet invasion of Finland and ended with the Moscow Peace Treaty in March 1940. Although the Soviets had three times more soldiers, thirty times more aircraft and a hundred times more tanks, the Finnish army managed to outsmart and repel the Soviet army in brutal winter temperatures as low as minus forty degrees Celsius. Despite being outnumbered by the Soviets on just about every front, the Finns persisted and won peace. Though Finland had to cede some territory to the Soviets, the tiny Nordic nation maintained its independence from a much larger power.

Another often-cited example of sisu is Finnish Olympic runner Lasse Virén’s unbelievable comeback after falling during the 10,000-metre race at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. Not only did Virén get up and continue to run, he went on to win the gold medal—and set a new world record. 

According to Finnish language scholar Maija Länsimäki, the use of the word sisu dates back to at least the 1500s, when it appeared in written texts referring to both a personality trait or aspect of someone’s nature, and to the interior or inside of something. 

In a dictionary published in 1745 by Finnish writer, bishop and professor Daniel Juslenius, the word sisucunda was defined as the location in the human body where strong emotions could be felt.

Daily sisu

My observation as an outsider-insider—though I was born in Finland, I spent my formative years in Canada with stints in England and New Zealand—is that many people living in Finland adopt a kind of daily sisu, which means choosing not to take the easy way out. A few examples include cycling or walking to work, for their health benefits, when it might be easier to travel by car, or slightly less taxing ones such as heading out foraging for berries and mushrooms during the summer and autumn months instead of purchasing them at the greengrocers. 
 
Turning the long cold winter into an opportunity rather than simply something that must be endured also offers good opportunities for sisu. Take winter or ice swimming, a popular practice in Finland, which consists of dipping or swimming in icy water that’s about two to four degrees Celsius, in a hole carved into the ice of a lake or the sea. Mustering up the courage to do something difficult (and seemingly unpleasant—yes, the water is freezing cold!) is a perfect example of sisu. 
 
The great surprise for many who try winter swimming for the first time is the post-dip feeling of euphoria. Swimmers feel energised and exuberant, as the immersion in icy water releases the so-called happy hormones. These include endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, serotonin (widely thought to maintain mood balance), dopamine (the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres and also helps to regulate movement and emotional response), and oxytocin (also known as the love hormone). The cold water also enhances blood circulation, burns calories, and the immune system gets a boost.
Alvar Aalto Collection vase 160 mm clear
Alvar Aalto Collection vase 160 mm clear

Quality over quantity sisu

Over time, I’ve started to apply the concept of this special Finnish fortitude to different areas of Nordic life. 
 
For example, I came of age at a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s in North America when conspicuous consumption was cool. Yet when I moved to Finland, I noticed that showy materialism and an excessive display of possessions are almost frowned upon. 
Initially I considered this pared-down approach to be part of the Nordic lifestyle. As people tend to live in relatively small apartments and houses, having less stuff is also a necessity.
 
But as I learned more about the country’s design legacy, I came to understand that there’s much more to Nordic minimalism—the idea that less is more—than merely a decluttered aesthetic.
 
Finnish design is, of course, renowned around the world for its timeless minimalist lines and functionality. I was familiar with design icons such as Marimekko, with their fabulous bold prints in clothing, accessories and homewares, and those ubiquitous orange-handled Fiskars scissors, which are reportedly the world’s bestseller.
 
But what I had not properly understood was one of the philosophies underlining it all: one well made, sustainably and ethically produced functional item will stand the test of time over several cheap, poor quality or unethically made products that will need to be thrown out and replaced. A kind of consumer sisu, if you will.
 
A few select examples of this include works by the great architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898–1976), such as the iconic Aalto Vase, created in 1936, which continues to sell from London to Buenos Aires. The undulating form of the glass vase mimics waves, which is also what aalto means in Finnish.
Kartio drinking glasses are another good example. Designed by Kaj Franck in 1958, the classic tumblers come in a range of shades from apple green to emerald, sea blue, rain and ultramarine blue, and have been a staple of design-savvy homes since their creation.
 
Where once I practised retail therapy as a pick-me-up, I learned a new approach to acquiring clothing and accessories, and even household items—all of my purchases should have a function and serve a purpose. This is a sisu approach in that it’s not about taking the easy, fast way out, but rather making carefully considered purchases. 
 
At its heart, the Finnish design ideology represents a sustainable ethic. By investing in a good stool or vase or drinking glass you don’t need to keep buying new ones. Though it may require a bit more of an investment initially, in the long run it’s easier on the wallet and the environment.
 
There’s a Finnish saying, Köyhällä ei ole varaa ostaa halpaa, which roughly translates as the poor cannot afford to buy cheap.
 
So whether it’s about sustainability, simplicity, or well-being, I would say that sisu is an attitude that runs through just about every vein of Finnish life. It has certainly changed my approach to everything, from consumption to well-being, as I’m now an avid winter swimmer, who cycles just about everywhere year round, makes an effort to be an ethical consumer and tries to approach life’s challenges as opportunities.