Finding Sisu: the Art of Finnish Inner Strength

Last updated March 21, 2024

Katja Pantzar is a writer, editor and broadcast journalist and author of The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu (Penguin Random House USA), a book about the Nordic lifestyle, well-being and sisu. 

We spoke to her virtually to learn more about sisu, a fascinating Finnish concept and approach to life that can be roughly translated as strength of will.

Okay, first, a little background please!

Katja: Sure, I’d be happy to! I was born in Finland and my family moved to New Zealand when I was three years old. After living for several years in Christchurch and then Auckland, we moved to the west coast of Canada just before I turned six.

I grew up in Vancouver, where I did my BA in Communication at Simon Fraser University before going on to complete an MA in Journalism at the City University of London in England. 

I’ve worked in journalism, publishing and communications for most of my career. For many years, I worked in book publishing in Toronto before moving to Helsinki, Finland, to take a then-dream job as a writer and an editor with an inflight magazine. 

My initial intention was to live in Europe for a year or two, brush up on my Finnish, and travel the world for work, which I did. 

During the journey, I fell in love with the simple, sensible and slightly less consumer-oriented Nordic lifestyle. And I gradually realized that I had little desire to move back to North America.

Can you share your story? Why books?

Since 2012 I’ve been a Helsinki-based freelancer, and one of the reasons for going freelance was to have more flexibility to write books. Ever since I was a child, I’ve dreamed of being a writer—I used to tap out short stories on my father’s Adler typewriter and cover my creations with book jackets fashioned out of wax paper to mimic the protective library book covers of the time. 

I’ve written three guidebooks to the Finnish capital: The Hip Guide to Helsinki, Helsinki by Light and 100 Things to do in Helsinki.

My first well-being title, The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu (Penguin Random House US) was first published in 2018 and translated into 20 different languages, thanks to my agent Elina Ahlbäck.

My next well-being book, Everyday Sisu: Tapping into Finnish Fortitude for a Happier, More Resilient Life (Penguin Random House) continues on the theme of wellness, uncovering how we can use sisu to strengthen our mental and physical health.

It also looks at tackling some of the big challenges facing all of us around the globe such as how to live more sustainable lives and address (and solve) societal issues such as homelessness.

What does wellness mean to you?

Katja: Wellness means the possibility for everyone to be able to live a relatively happy and healthy life.

That means many things including key lifestyle factors such as having easy, free access to nature — forests, lakes and the sea are all within a short walk or bike ride of where I live in Helsinki’s city center with my son.

Having grown up in the car culture of North America, being able to live car-free is an absolute luxury. It means being able to spend time pedaling or walking rather than in a car. 

Not only does cycling improve my mental and physical health, but it also saves me a lot of time and money, as we don’t need to pay for all the costs that would be associated with car ownership.

Wellness also means being able to eat a relatively healthy diet easily and affordably, as there’s a range of local, seasonable food on offer in grocery stores and at cafés and restaurants.

Wellness also means living in a society that aims for equality. Although Finland is not totally there yet, there are numerous public services such as free education (daycare through to university) and virtually free healthcare that make equal access and opportunity for all more of a possibility than in countries where healthcare and education can be very costly, for example. 

How did you discover the Finnish lifestyle you write about? Was it a gradual process or fairly instant?

Katja: I gradually discovered the Finnish lifestyle over several years of living in Finland. Some of my observations arose through the journalistic process of trying to understand different ways of doing things, some of which were culturally specific.

A huge source of inspiration was observing the best practices of the heartiest people around me. 

For example, at my first workplace in Finland, I quickly noticed that several of my most upbeat co-workers, especially during the dark cold winter months, were year-round cyclists who seemed to relish riding to the office no matter what the weather was. 

It was just a matter of having the right attitude and cycling gear, along with a healthy dose of sisu

After all, in the Nordics, there’s no such thing as bad weather so long as you’re equipped with the right clothing and accessories.

Specific to sisu, what is the rough definition/concept?

Katja: Sisu is a unique form of Finnish fortitude in the face of challenges (big and small) that anyone anywhere can adopt. 

Sisu is often described as a mixture of grit, resilience and courage. The term dates back more than 500 years.

Can you give us some examples to illustrate?

Katja: Winter swimming is the perfect example of a sisu-esque activity. Winter, or ice swimming, is taking a dip in the sea or a lake in a small hole carved into ice during the cold winter months when the water is between 1 to 4 degrees Celsius. 

Not only does it take sisu to muster up the strength to take the plunge, but a 30-second to one-minute dip also has loads of well-being benefits as blood flow and heart rate increase and the happy hormones kick in, which is why post-dip many swimmers feel a sense of euphoria. 

Quite simply, you leave your stress and aches and pains in the water. And emerge happier!

Not only is winter swimming a great example of self-care, but it also illustrates a sisu approach to life. 

Instead of sitting around and complaining about the lack of warm beach weather, it’s about tapping into and making the most of whatever the situation is (for example, freezing cold water and weather) and turning it around to your benefit.

Let’s talk food! Can you explain the Nordic diet and its benefits?

Katja: Sure! The Nordic diet is a commonsense approach to eating locally and seasonably that favors Nordic berries and vegetables, for example.

It advocates eating less red meat and more fish, snacking on berries that are high in antioxidants (the natural plant compounds that help to ward off cancer, heart disease and stroke, for example), and eating rye bread, which contains at least three times more fiber than white bread and is rich in B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc and antioxidants. 

Potatoes and root vegetables are also good sources of fiber, magnesium, and potassium and they grow throughout Finland.

Eating regular well-balanced, healthy meals means a focus on breakfast and lunch so that you ensure you have enough energy to fuel your day. 

In addition to a hearty breakfast, having a proper warm lunch is a national habit as workplace canteens and cafes and restaurants throughout Finland serve a full meal lunch— a choice of several warm dishes (vegan, chicken, fish or meat)—in addition to a plentiful salad bar and an assortment of freshly baked breads rounded out by coffee or tea and dessert.

Instead of fad diets, eating properly means that you can also have the occasional treat. Because you’re not depriving yourself of anything, it’s easier to stay on track.

One of the newer elements of the Nordic diet is the focus on vegetables and legumes – we all know that moving towards a plant-based diet is not only healthy for us but is also good for the planet.

We love healing practices like forest therapy and cold water swimming. Is it a coincidence that these occur in nature rather than indoors?

Katja: No, it’s not a coincidence because the restorative powers of nature are so strong and well-documented—even a 15-minute walk in the woods has numerous benefits such as decreasing stress and anxiety. 

A disconnection from nature is one of the reasons why many people feel unwell.

What’s next for you?

Katja: I’m just finishing up my next book, Everyday Sisu: Tapping into Finnish Fortitude for a Happier, More Resilient Life which will be published by Penguin Random House US in Spring 2022. 

It continues on the theme of well-being, uncovering how we can use sisu to strengthen our mental and physical health, as well as to tackle some of the big challenges facing all of us around the globe such as how to live more sustainable lives and address (and solve) societal issues such as homelessness.

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