Finnish “sisu” explained

Finnish “sisu” explained

Meet social activist Emilia Lahti, who is spreading the message of “sisu” by redefining the way we tackle life’s challenges.


The Finnish concept of sisu is trending big time. Variably referring to strength of ­character, courage, or an ability to push through boundaries, it is said to be the new hygge, with several books recently published on the subject.

Researcher and activist Emilia Lahti is no stranger to the topic. Often referred to as a “sisu researcher,” she began investigating the subject in 2013 while studying applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. By conducting in-depth interviews with people who had been through hardships in life, she looked for markers explaining how and why they had survived traumatic experiences.

“Especially in Finland there is a strong ‘lonely survivor’ myth, as if it were somehow shameful to seek help. But what I found out is that all of the respondents who had overcome major traumas had at least one person they could turn to,” she says.

Lahti points out that people with too much mental toughness can actually be hard to be around because they are often so demanding on themselves and others. “The same strength that is used to forcefully push towards personal goals could be devoted to creating a more compassionate world,” she explains, citing the fundamentals of positive psychology to explain what makes individuals and societies thrive.

“What takes the most courage is to be seen the way we really are.”

The motivation for Lahti’s work stems largely from personal experience. Seven and a half years ago she was living and working in New York – in a relationship that turned out to be a violent one. To break the silence surrounding domestic violence, Lahti decided to tell her own story by starting a campaign called “Sisu Not Silence,” which recently took her on a 50-day run across New Zealand, during which she gathered together hundreds of people to ­discuss the culture of ­nonviolence. “I see sisu as a way to empower others. What takes the most courage is to be seen the way we really are, and to tell our own story as it is. Depression, violence, and other hardships in life are often kept in secret but when you talk about those things you start to experience a new kind of freedom,” she says.

Back in her native Finland, Lahti is currently a PhD student at Aalto University in Helsinki. In the future she hopes to continue working as an ­activist spreading a message of sisu, love, and compassion with a clear goal in mind. “I wish that we could all live in a world in which telling our story doesn’t require so much courage.”

Text Laura Iisalo
Photo Johanna Merenheimo



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