This past winter break, after a rather stressful semester of teaching coupled with wedding planning, I was more than ready for the ensuing honeymoon on the beach in Mexico. I knew the trip would be a necessary opportunity to finally unplug and unwind. One of my favorite ways to do this is through reading, so I went to Barnes and Noble the night before our departure to find any book that looked interesting to take with me to Mexico.
I found a book called The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu. The title caught my attention with its reference to a faraway culture and language (I’m a language teacher a.k.a travel fanatic). I thumbed through the pages to get a sense of whether I would like the book or not and after a quick glance figured “Why not?” and bought it.
It proved to be the perfect accompaniment to my vacation as I sipped piña coladas by the pool. The book’s sole focus is to explain “sisu” (pronounced “see-su”) — a sort of Finnish cultural phenomenon that the author contends is the reason behind the high level of happiness among the Finns. As it turns out, “sisu” is the Finnish word for what in English might be described as courage mixed with grit. It’s a cultural teaching that Finns instill in their children from a young age so that by the time they are adults, they have a certain will to persevere and an unrelenting positivity in the face of challenges. As author Katja Pantzar points out:
“Sisu is a way of life to actively transform the challenges that come our way into opportunities.”
It’s simply a natural underpinning of the Finns’ daily lifestyle — and offers huge benefits.
Back in that moment in time, there by the pool, the author’s teachings struck a chord with me. Despite having just gotten married to the man of my dreams surrounded by our closest loved ones, I was still dealing with plenty of other life stressors. In fact, the book helped me realize that this is a natural part of the American lifestyle — we overwork ourselves and deprive ourselves of vacations because inherent in our culture is a persistent will to achieve success. Maybe it could do some good to adopt “the Finnish Way”?
So that’s what I did. I took the author’s advice and tried out some Finnish behaviors and, I have to say, it made a huge difference in my life. So maybe you’d like to try these for yourself:
- Get out in nature. Every day. Regardless of the weather. According to the Finns, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.” Precipitation and extreme temperatures won’t actually hurt you, if you’re prepared for this. But getting outside puts your body closer to its natural state and that is a stress reliever. So I went on walks, even in bad weather, and I have to say it felt invigorating. Humans were meant to be outdoors and not pent up inside artificial environments. It’s important to take breaks from the computer, phone, or television screens and not make excuses to avoid it. So, when was the last time you enjoyed some fresh air?
- Saunas and cold dips are incredibly healing. The term “sauna” itself is a Finnish, so it’s no wonder that there is almost one sauna per two people in Finland. The Finns use these to expel the toxins and promote relaxation followed by cold dips to boost blood flow as well as release good hormones and improve the immune system’s resistance. Coincidentally, while in Mexico my husband and I took a spa day on the last day of our trip. Included as part of this relaxation package was a hydrotherapy treatment consisting of a sauna, cold dip, and jetted tub experience. Although hesitant at first, we ended up repeating the sauna-into-cold-dip experience three times and absolutely loved it. Furthermore, I have to say the results speak for themselves because the next day I have never felt more relaxed and pain-free. Even simple aches in my neck and back were gone and my whole body felt incredible. So, maybe if you can find a sauna and cold shower at your gym, you should give it a whirl.
- Go minimal. The Finns are proud of their simple, yet functional furniture designs and décor. Everything has a place and a purpose. There is no need for any more or for extra frills. I own a small house and I have stuck by this philosophy, because I don’t have extra room to have so many things. But, after reading this book, I gave my house a good combing over to find superfluous items that could be donated. Turns out, there was a lot of junk hiding in random drawers, cupboards and shelves that I simply didn’t notice and also didn’t need. When you rid your environment of extra stuff, there is an immediate benefit on your body and stress levels. Less to clean, less to maintain, less to worry about. This same concept can be applied to your daily regimen too. For example, instead of holding onto to extra, unnecessary ingredients around my kitchen, I started cleaning out my fridge and freezer and shopping for only fresh produce that I had a recipe for each week. As the saying goes “less is more” and adopting this way of life leads to less stress and more happiness.
- Recycle. And I don’t just mean your daily waste. I’m talking about re-using and re-purposing things you already have instead of buying new. One thing I found fascinating is that the Finns are the most avid book readers, and mostly via borrowing from the library. I love to read, but much like this book I used to just go to a bookstore or Amazon to find a new release to enjoy. Now, I reinstated my library card and have already enjoyed three excellent books for free. Not only that, but going to the library means getting out and enjoying the weather and also interacting with people who can give me good recommendations for books. It builds community that I had overlooked before and I’m happy I’m not wasting money anymore.
- Move more. We all know this is something that the American culture could definitely use more of. But the author isn’t referring to structured time at the gym, rather just simple daily activities to increase movement. The Finns, for example, find “sisu” in biking everywhere instead of driving. They also get exercise from doing their errands this way and through doing chores at home. Here it’s really a mindset that this book helped me develop around accomplishing these everyday tasks. For example, instead of dreading folding the laundry I reminded myself how much exercise I would get from it. I should be excited to get up off the couch, go up and down the stairs to get the laundry and fold it. Then I get the workout of putting it all away. The same mindset applies to getting up and walking to accomplish a task at work or in cooking daily meals at home. It’s all healthy movement that should invigorate us, because being active is a blessing that sometimes in the modern day we take for granted.
So, despite the extreme cold and darkness that Finns endure in winter, they cultivate and demonstrate their “sisu” every day and this helps them maintain high levels of happiness. I like how Katja Pantzar puts it in her book:
“Instead of ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’, how about ‘How can I?’”
Applying the principles of The Finnish Way to my life has had a dramatic improvement on my mood and mindset. In fact, my husband and I now joke with one another when we’re about to complain or create an excuse for not doing something: we say “sisu” and get on with it.
So, cheers to finding your inner “sisu.” : )