the Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu

the Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu by Katja Pantzar is a guide whose purpose is to share advice on how to live a better life–the Finnish way. The author is a Canadian born of Finnish parents, and at the time of publication resides in Helsinki. The concept of sisu, a word which Finns take great pride in informing others is hard to translate, refers to a combination of inner strength and resilience, often simplified by having “grit” or “guts” in the face of adversity. Finns are born with a strong sisu, and Pantzar shows how embracing the natural world can enhance one’s way of life and strengthen one’s sisu.

Most of the advice on developing a happier lifestyle is based on unplugging and de-stressing by spending more time outdoors. Pantzar stresses this point repeatedly, where the panacea for all of life’s ills seems to boil down to “just go outside”. She backs up her claims of international lassitude with plenty of reputable statistics about obesity and heart disease, and shows how Finns do things differently starting from a young age:

“Another aspect that stands out is that year-round in Finland children play outdoors. Rain, shine, or snow, every day in day care and preschool they spend time at the local playground, the only exception being if temperatures dip below a certain point.
“In the day care and preschool system, all the kids have proper rain gear and warm winter overalls along with hats, scarves, and mitts provided by their parents.
“This seems like good sisu training to me, for early on children are taught a hardy approach to heading outdoors as part of a healthy daily routine. I come across this head-outside-whatever-the-weather sensibility in several other Nordic countries, from Norway to Iceland. There are different variations of the same saying based on the general idea that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.”

A major part of Pantzar’s life and a great relief for her aches and bouts with depression is winter swimming. She went on at length about the physiological and mental benefits a polar plunge can provide. I found her raving about this to be annoying because she never dropped the subject. From chapter three, entitled Cold Water Cure, to the end of the book–which even included an appendix with Winter Swimming Tips–Pantzar sounded like an infomercial huckster. I did however find the passage below funny:

“And then there are the smartphone- and camera-toting tourists, who come by to snap a photo or two of what they perceive to be an exotic and extreme activity. They watch with amazement as we go into the water–and we entertain ourselves by coming up with a range of answers to the inevitable question: ‘Is the water cold?’
“‘No, actually this part of the sea is heated for us especially by the city,’ we reply, giggling as we walk back to the changing rooms and slip out of sight.”

While sisu is the personal strength to endure where others might have given up, Pantzar emphasizes the need to assess the risks of every situation, for:

“The downside of sisu is trying to manage everything on one’s own and not asking for help.”

One can still show a strong sisu by sharing one’s troubles and seeking assistance.

I didn’t find the Finnish Way too inspiring, and it was repetitious when a simple chapter and review of the advice given would have been enough. Pantzar was however preaching to a fennophile so I was already a disciple of doing things the Finnish way.

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