Collaborative “Sisu” and Modesty: Finland’s Story of Accidental Happiness (Part One)

Part One: Why the Finns Don’t Seem to Know (Or Care to Know) If They Are Happy

In February when the United Nations declared Finland the “happiest nation on Earth,” the announcement was posted all over my Facebook news feed by congratulatory Americans with close ties to Finland and much affection for their Finnish friends. However, every one of my Finnish friends in Finland stayed characteristically silent, and most Finnish expat friends or Finnish-American friends like me seemed primarily interested in discussing the award’s over-simplification. (I wish I could share these friends’ cool Finnish names, but unfortunately I will have to call them Finn #1, 2, 3, and 4 because I have promised to respect their privacy.)

“There’s something wrong,” said Finn #1 in a Facebook conversation thread, “if the world’s happiest country is the one with half the population ill with depression and the other half suffering from repressed emotion. Could we just not use the word ‘happy’? Instead we could talk about well-being.”

Finn #2, an expat who had posted the news, responded to Finn #1, not by taking offense, but by acknowledging Finland’s high rates of alcoholism and then by sharing another article poking fun of the stoic Finns for their inability to show emotion or take compliments. Finn #2 then went on, like every good research-loving Finn, to ask Finn #1 for stats to support her claim that “over half” of the country’s citizens are depressed, and Finn #1 admitted, “I might have exaggerated a bit there. Not even meaning to be accurate.” Finn #3, who left Finland 54 years ago, affirmed that Finland “was that time definitely not one of the happiest,” and Finn #4 suggested that the recognition should have been, “not for the happiest people,” but for “the most . . . services, etc. to be happy of.”

If by this point you are thinking that the Finns are a strange, gloomy people determined NOT to be happy, you are not alone. In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner affirms what most Americans tend to notice: the Finns’ show of happiness is not the “American idea of overflowing with joy.”  Further, the Finnish cultural taboo against bragging and the related national habit of self-deprecation make it impossible for the Finns to openly celebrate their accomplishments the way that many Americans would. Last year as they gratefully contemplated their 100 years of unlikely independence and remarkable achievement, the closest some brave, young Finnish entrepreneurs could come to self-congratulation was to awkwardly ask the world to brag for them “a little” on social media with the hashtag #bragforfinland.

There is good geographical and historical reason for the Finns’ stoicism and modesty. The 5.5 million people in this nation bordering Russia know both the tenuousness of their good fortune and the wisdom of not calling attention to it. Better to keep their happiness to themselves than to advertise to political opportunists how desirable their country is.

On the other hand, I think the Finns sometimes don’t recognize their happiness because they simply have not had the luxury of valuing happiness the same way Americans do. The character-shaping history they share is not a quest for happiness but rather a centuries-long, exhaustive, and arduous struggle to survive. For the Finns, happiness is like their sun-filled summer—breathtakingly beautiful and soul-replenishing but far too short to be relied on.

legssummer evenine

The real business of living occurs in their struggle to endure the long, cold, dark winter.

winter 2

And throughout their history a trait called sisu (which I will define in a moment) has been more useful and valuable to their survival than happiness.

900 Years of Finnish History in Three Paragraphs

Finland was part of Sweden for almost 700 years and then a Grand-Duchy of Russia for another hundred years, and these two super-powers fought numerous wars on Finnish soil with Finnish soldiers. When internal strife weakened and distracted the Soviet government in 1917, the Finns seized their opportunity and established their independence without Soviet resistance, though an ensuing Finnish civil war took another 40,000 Finnish lives. 22 years later, in 1939, the Soviet army decided it needed Finland back and began bombing Helsinki. My mother, the daughter of a Finnish Air Force pilot, was four years old at the time. She remembers fleeing Helsinki with her family and watching the city burn through the car’s back window.

By 1945, the Finns had given up their beloved Karelia (the eastern 10 percent of the nation) in a peace treaty with the Russians, and 95,000 more young Finnish soldiers (almost ten times the number per capita of US fallen WWII soldiers) lay in graves.  Yet miraculously, the rest of the nation was still intact—the only remaining independent democracy bordering the Soviet Union after World War II.

Considering that the Soviet Union’s population outnumbered Finland’s by 54 to 1, most Finns credit their survival to sisu, and the term is such a powerful, multi-faceted symbol of the Finnish national character that you’ll need to bear with me for a few paragraphs so that I can define it adequately.

The Power of Sisu

To begin, sisu is strength, resilience, and stamina on steroids.  During World War II sisu was the Finns’ hardy acclimation to the cold, Finnish winter and a winter defense strategy that claimed the lives of five Russian soldiers for every Finnish casualty.

winter war

Today sisu is displayed by Finnish birthing mothers who accept far fewer pain numbing medications than their American sisters, by adults riding bikes to work on snow-packed roads, and by children snow shoeing or cross-country skiing to school or playing ice hockey on frozen lakes during their few hours of winter daylight.


snow shoe ice fishing    Sisu is also fierce determination and tenacity bordering on insanity (probably aided sometimes by alcohol) or as  Wikipedia explains, a “grim, gritty, white-knuckle form of courage” which “expresses itself in taking action against the odds and displaying … resoluteness in the face of adversity …. [and] even despite repeated failures.” Recently a Finnish friend told me about a skate-skiing race he participates in where someone dies almost every year from over-exertion. This is Finnish sisu.

Collective Sisu

Finally, since before Finland’s birth as a nation, Finnish sisu has been associated, not just with individual strength and tenacity, but with strength and tenacity for the sake of one’s fellow Finns.  During the early 19th century period of nationalism, the Finns began to perceive sisu as their stubborn maintaining of their language and culture even though they were peasants living under the rule of governments whose wars threatened their extinction.  Then sisu was daring to dream of and fight for their independence despite the stunning odds against them.  Today, collective sisu continues to be enforced by the Finnish constitution, which requires every young Finnish man to serve in the military for 6-12 months, and by the Finnish school system, which intersperses 15 minutes of outdoor recess, no matter how low the temperature, between every 45 minutes of classroom instruction. Even when Finns are exerting sisu in private and personal activities, they are doing so to be “good Finns,” true to their national character.

Last year the Finns displayed the importance of their collective Finnish identity by choosing “together” as the theme of their centennial celebration. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö explained the theme in Washington D.C. for Americans who might be surprised by it.

“At first sight, [together] may look like the exact opposite of the word “independence.” Doesn’t being independent mean the freedom to do things on your own and your way? Yet a closer look makes it clear that “together” is the very essence of our independence. It always has been.”

Finnish sisu is thus bigger than happiness and bigger than even personal survival because both must sometimes be compromised in the struggle for collective survival. However, I think the really wonderful, parodoxical part of Finnish history is that, since World War II ended, the Finns have also used their “sisu together” mentality to improve individual well-being and in some cases (whether they can admit it or not) even happiness.

In Part Two (my next post), I will discuss the programs and policies the Finns have implemented to promote individual as well as collective well-being. In the mean time, however, I would love to hear from those acquainted with the Finns and their history. What do you think of my theory that the Finns have been more consciously focused on survival than on happiness? How do you explain the Finns’ apparent lack of interest in their happiness award? Do you think they are secretly more pleased with the award than they let on in Facebook conversations or do they view the award as meaningless hype? What, if anything, did you or other Finns think and say when you heard the news?

To continue to Part Two, click here.

3 thoughts on “Collaborative “Sisu” and Modesty: Finland’s Story of Accidental Happiness (Part One)”

  1. The theory that Finns are more consciously focused on their survival than on happiness is explicitly illustrated in my mother. My LDS dad was at a loud I mpasse of epic proportions with my devoutly, Finnish mom. They were out front when I got home and my three older siblings sat watching from the lawn. The spectacle lasted for some time. I waved at my neighbor who had set up a lawn chair across the street. He waved back. Finally, my oldest sister couldn’t take it anymore, “Mom, what are you doing?! He’s never gonna change! This is never gonna be a celestial marriage!”
    My mom yelled back: “I don’t care about celestial marriage! I’m just trying to survive!” She was in the middle of treading water for 55 years.


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