Is sisu the key to greater resilience?

Scandinavian philosophy is having a moment, and one concept to love is sisu – the Finnish ideal that helps us realise our inner strength.

Sisu comes from sisus, which means guts or intestines in Finnish.

The concept is difficult to translate precisely into English but it’s often described as the Finnish take on building inner strength, resilience or perseverance.

Aalto University researcher Emilia Lahtia, who has studied sisu in Finland, describes it as something inside us that keeps us going, even when we think we’ve reached our physical or emotional limits.

So, it’s comparable to resilience and determination to see things through.

“Taking a close look at the concept reminds us that, as humans, not only are we all vulnerable in the face of adversity but we share unexplored inner strength that can be accessed in adverse times,” Emilia says.

The Resilience Centre senior clinical psychologist Lyn Worlsey says resilience, or perhaps sisu for the Finnish, relies on a number of factors.

She refers to the Resilience Doughnut model, which has “I Have, I Am and I Can” at the centre and seven protective factors around the outside: Parents, money, skill, peers, family identity, connectedness, education and community.

“Throughout life, those factors change and some become more important than others,” Lyn says.

Why does resilience or sisu matter?

We can all find our resilience or sisu level ebbing and flowing.

Some weeks we will feel that we can take on the world and other days we feel like things are getting too hard and draining.

“There will be times when you have a mental collapse and when you don’t have access to all the resources you need to get through that moment,” Lyn says.

“People might lose a job, go through a relationship breakdown or become estranged from their family.

“The way forward is to get some of those resilience factors in line and to have resources to draw on, like people to support you and who can support you to do something to change your circumstances.”

It’s worth working on building your resilience resources, too.

Lyn says research shows that people who are resilient have more opportunities in life, connect with the right people to help them navigate tough times and they even seem to enjoy better physical health and recovery.

How can you get more sisu?

“Resilience isn’t something you are born with,” Lyn says.

“You can work on it by building strong relationships and strengthening the other protective factors, like having meaningful connections with people who matter and being part of neighbourhood groups and community and family networks.”

Emilia’s research also found that you can overdo sisu.

Pushing against adversity too hard can leave people feeling burnt out, exhausted and defeated.

So, your sisu needs to be mixed with a healthy dose of balance, too.

“It’s all about building your ability to negotiate, to grasp hope and to be able to have conversations in your head that tell you that you have people to help you,” Lyn says.

“You can do what you have to do, negotiate your way out of a difficult circumstance and navigate your way out of adversity.”

Written by Sarah Marinos.