The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu
ISBN 10: 0143132997
ISBN 13: 978-0143132998
An engaging and practical guided tour of the simple and nature-inspired ways that Finns stay happy and healthy--including the powerful concept of sisu, or everyday courage
Forget hygge--it's time to blow out the candles and get out into the world! Journalist Katja Pantzar did just that, taking the huge leap to move to the remote Nordic country of Finland. What she discovered there transformed her body, mind and spirit. In this engaging and practical guide, she shows readers how to embrace the "keep it simple and sensible" daily practices that make Finns one of the happiest populations in the world, year after year.
• Movement as medicine: How walking, biking and swimming every day are good for what ails us--and best done outside the confines of a gym
• Forest therapy: Why there's no substitute for getting out into nature on a regular basis
• Healthy eating: What the Nordic diet can teach us all about feeding body, mind and soul
• The gift of sisu: Why Finns embrace a special form of courage, grit and determination as a national virtue - and how anyone can dig deeper to survive and thrive through tough times.
If you've ever wondered if there's a better, simpler way to find happiness and good heath, look no further. The Finns have a word for that, and this empowering book shows us how to achieve it.
About the Author
Katja Pantzar works as a writer, editor and broadcast journalist. Raised in Canada, with stints in the UK and New Zealand, she is currently based in Helsinki, where she swims in the sea almost every day, all year round.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
An Introduction to the Simple and Sensible Lifestyle and Sisu
During my first few months in Finland, my everyday life undergoes a transformation, a makeover. But it's not an extreme makeover, as each lifestyle change occurs without me really noticing, as some of the changes are part of my new day-to-day routine.
Instead of working late into the evening as I often did in Toronto, my workday in Helsinki starts around nine a.m. and ends around five p.m. There's a proper lunch-hour break, which just about everyone seems to take at a cafŽ nearby or in the staff canteen that serves up a hot meal the company subsidizes. There are always several dishes to choose from-vegetarian, chicken, fish, or meat-in addition to a plentiful salad bar and an assortment of freshly baked breads.
Though anyone who has eaten at workplace canteens in Finland would likely laugh at the notion of them resembling the Nordic diet-undeniably it is canteen food made for hundreds of employees-the food on offer does loosely follow the tenets of the Nordic diet. Which is: simple, affordable food that emphasizes local and seasonable products-vegetables, fruits, and berries; whole grains such as oats and rye; and fish, game, and dairy. The dessert on offer is often a piece of fruit or a cranberry whip or quark with blueberries-it is rarely cake or pastries.
This new routine of taking a proper lunch break also sets me up for changing my eating habits: rather than eating my main meal in the evening, I now have it in the middle of the day-as millions of Scandinavians do. Instead of scarfing down a sandwich over my keyboard as I had previously done, I sit down with my colleagues and eat a proper, fairly balanced meal while we discuss the issues of the day. Rather than spending the day hungry in anticipation of dinner, I'm well fueled.
Like many of my coworkers, I start riding a bicycle to work every day as I don't have a car. Initially I cycle on a forty-year-old bright blue Jopo, a sturdy Finnish classic with no gears, lent to me by my aunt and uncle. This no-frills bike symbolizes Nordic simplicity and design-a bike doesn't need to have a million gears to move forward.
In several cities where I've lived, I've ridden (or tried to ride) my bicycle to school or work. But in London, Toronto, and Vancouver, I found it much more difficult to do so because there wasn't always a network of well-marked and maintained bike paths leading to the places I needed to go, and jostling with busy traffic made me nervous. This is changing, though: London, Toronto, and Vancouver have made massive strides in promoting cycling as a form of transport over the past decade.
In Helsinki, as in the other Nordic capitals, there's a series of marked bike paths throughout the city; often a painted line-one side for pedestrians, the other for cyclists-divides the sidewalk.
I quickly become seriously hooked on cycling because it's such a practical way to get around and also because it provides me with daily exercise without the extra effort required to go to the gym after a long workday. My six-kilometer pedaling route through woods and city and along the seaside in the fresh air wakes me up in the morning. I start to observe nature and the changing seasons in a way I've not done before. I notice that I sleep better at night, which in turn seems to reduce my levels of anxiety.
After work, I pedal away the day's stress. I soon realize that on the days I don't bike to work, I miss it and feel lethargic.
I notice that instead of a coffee break, some of my colleagues take time to go swimming or aqua-jogging-running in the water with a buoyancy belt; they head down to the staff pool for fifteen minutes of exercise and return refreshed, physically and mentally. I decide to try it out and occasionally join them, discovering the benefits of increased energy and concentration.
These are just a few of the lifestyle changes that I find myself making, naturally and almost without noticing.
Finland is, of course, also full of private gyms offering everything from personal trainers to spinning classes, CrossFit, and yoga. But my first impression is that for a great many people, exercise and well-being are largely equated with simple and sensible options such as walking and biking and swimming that are accessible to everyone and that can become just part of the day's routine rather than a forced add-on.
Hello, sisu! Underlining just about every aspect of my gradual immersion into the Nordic lifestyle-which I must confess takes me a while to adjust to and fully appreciate (ÒWait, weÕre having a team-building day outdoors in a nature park? But itÕs snowing!Ó)-is this unique Finnish strength of will, a determination to not give up or take the easy way out. That is, having oodles of sisu.
Initially, I mistake this sisu quality in some instances for stubbornness, eccentricity, or a thriftiness that seems foreign and totally unnecessary to me.
For example, having grown up in a "cars rule" culture, I'm elated that one of the perks of being employed by a large media company means a taxi travel benefit that allows me to cab it to work functions such as interviews, press events, and the airport for assignments abroad.
Yet to my great bewilderment, a colleague of mine-who has the same taxi benefit-frequently opts to cycle to work events that are within a reasonable distance instead of hopping into a company-sponsored cab.
At the time I'm truly perplexed: Why on earth would someone voluntarily choose to take the less easy way out? Pedaling instead of relaxing in the comfort of a chauffeured ride?
Much later I come to understand that decision very well from the perspective of Nordic practicality topped with a healthy dose of grit. After being in the office for several hours, what better than a little bit of exercise and fresh air? Not to mention the environmental benefits of one less car on the road. And sometimes the pedaling option may actually be faster if it means zipping along unhindered in the bicycle lane rather than sitting in rush-hour traffic.
Years later, in hindsight, I consider many of those examples set by my colleagues and other people I meet in Finland as small, daily acts of sisu.
But it's a long journey before I arrive at this conclusion.
One of the first times that I pay attention to the term sisu is when I start winter cycling during the second winter of my stay. As I brave freezing temperatures and snow, a neighbor who sees me pulling up on my bicycle in the courtyard of our apartment building says to me: "Olet sisukas!" You have sisu. I take this as a compliment and translate it to mean that I'm a badass because I'm doing something physically demanding in challenging weather conditions. Later, my winter swimming practice also generates this same phrase of praise.
I previously heard the word sisu, but never really gave it much thought. Those sisukas comments mean more than just being a badass, and later I decide to find out more about the term. It appears just about everywhere in Finland. It's the brand name of a much-loved licorice pastille that's been around since 1928. Sisu is also part of the country's unofficial motto or slogan, "Sisu, sauna, and Sibelius," which I think is intended to sum up the essence of the country and its identity.
Now sauna and Sibelius seem self-explanatory.
The country is brimming with saunas, private and public-some estimates place the total at 3.3 million saunas in a country of 5.5 million people-the Finnish steam bath's role as a quintessential part of the lifestyle and culture is indisputable. In fact, it's almost impossible to visit Finland and avoid the sauna experience, or at least an invitation to one.
As for Sibelius, that's Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), one of Finland's best-known composers. His many accomplishments include composing the defiant "Finlandia"-an unofficial national anthem that was forbidden during Russian rule. Finland's independence more than one hundred years ago is a massive point of pride for the Finns, who were ruled for six centuries by the Swedes before the Russians ceded Finland as a grand duchy in the Russian Empire in 1809. This also perhaps explains the Finns' competitiveness with the Swedes in everything from ice hockey to international rankings of any kind.
But when it comes to the essence of sisu, its definition appears to be more elusive. When I ask people what they think it means, I get a range of answers that could best be summed up with an unofficial consensus of: "It's about not giving up, especially when things get tough."
Then Finns often go on to cite significant sisu achievements such as great victories in war and sport.
The most common referred to is Finland's victory over the Soviet Union during the Winter War. In 1940, Time magazine eloquently described that unique quality of resilience:
The Finns have something they call sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate sisu as "the Finnish spirit," but it is a much more gutful word than that.
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 one hundred times more tanks, the Finnish army managed to outsmart and deter the Soviet army in brutal winter temperatures as low as 40 degrees Celsius at a time of year when the far north was blanketed by darkness for most of the day.
The images of Finnish soldiers on skis in their white uniforms, a simple but clever camouflage against the snowy backdrop, became a symbol of the special kind of resilience and strength in persevering in the face of the seemingly impossible. 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 against a much larger power.
Other popular sisu examples include amazing sporting feats, such as that of Finnish Olympic runner Lasse VirŽn's unbelievable comeback after falling during the 10,000-meter race at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. Not only did VirŽn get up and continue to run, he went on to win the gold medal-and set a new world record. Now that is true sisu, as many Finns tell me.
But is sisu culturally specific? Or can anyone build up their resilience Finnish-style?
Framing sisu within the context of my own quest for a healthier and ultimately happier life greatly interests me. I believe that tapping into a reserve of grit or resilience that I didn't know I had-whether by making the effort to go for a cold water swim each morning or getting on my bike whatever the weather-has been fundamental in providing me with the tools to boost my mental and physical well-being. It has enabled me to move away from a "learned helplessness," an attitude where I thought there was little I could do but accept myself as a slightly lethargic depressive who sometimes had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, and become someone who wakes up early to squeeze in a dip before the day starts.
In my search to better understand the concept of sisu, I have come up with a list of questions: Is sisu a mental power or muscle that you flex? Where does it come from? Is it a cultural construct, part of a country brand, or a slogan? Or, as I suspect, a sort of mind and body attitude that anyone, anywhere, can tap into?
In my quest to wrap my head around the term, I initially apply it liberally to cover a quality that I notice a great many Finns seem to share: a hardy, active, outdoors-in-any-weather, do-it-yourself approach to life.
Even when it comes to domestic chores, such as house or window cleaning, which many people could easily afford to pay someone to do, it seems instead to be a source of personal pride and satisfaction to take on the task oneself.
I observe that this DIY approach also includes trying to fix things before rushing out to buy new ones and taking on home renovations instead of contracting them out. Doing instead of buying.
As for this special hardiness, I notice that it appears to link into a kind of experiences-over-possessions attitude. For example, during a typical Monday lunch following the weekend, many of my coworkers talk about activities they undertook. Shopping or discussing material acquisitions rarely forms the answer to the question "How was your weekend?" or "What did you do?" Instead, the most common responses include outdoor- or nature-based activities, regardless of the weather or season. To say you have been in the woods picking berries and/or mushrooms; fishing at the cottage; swimming at the lake; skiing; or on a minibreak in Stockholm, Tallinn, London, or Berlin is a common reply.
It's not that I wasn't exposed to outdoorsy types growing up in Canada, but here in Finland, daily doses of nature seem to form part of nearly everyone's lexicon. This is in part a reflection of Finland's relatively late urbanization during the 1950s and '60s. Prior to the Second World War, 75 percent of Finns lived in rural areas; now almost 85 percent of the population lives in cities and urban areas. But more than that, a great love and appreciation of the outdoors seems to be in the DNA.
Nordic practicality. As time goes on, when I return to North America on visits, IÕm struck by how complicated urban life seems, and on so many levels. On a continent that advertises endless options, it seems to me that some people make few natural lifestyle choices.
On a rainy December day in Vancouver, I watch as my friend's active six-year-old son practically climbs the walls of their town house. When my friend says that perhaps he needs medication to help him calm down, I look at her in disbelief and as tactfully as I can suggest that he probably just needs to go outside and run and jump and play. "It's normal for a young child to be full of energy," I say, trying to reassure her. Her response? She doesn't want to go outside because they would get wet. From a Nordic perspective, it seems odd to me that her first thought was medication, not exercise or activity, or investing in good rain gear. Especially given that Vancouver is one of Canada's rainiest cities, with upward of 150 days on average of rain a year.