Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s called sisu, and it’s Finnish for fortitude. But it probably won’t work on you.
It seems like a lot of people can’t get enough of being told how to live their lives by Scandinavians. That’s what you might assume by the truckload of English-language books, articles, and TED talks emerging in recent years, all urging readers to adopt lifestyle philosophies that hail from various Nordic cultures.
First came the craze for Danish hygge (pronounced HOO-guh) a striving for cozy, primarily domestic wellness that some authors claimed lay behind Danes’ apparent satisfaction with their lives. Then we discovered Swedish lagom (LAW-gm), a term broadly meaning “just enough,” whose use as a moderating folk principle, boosters suggested, has helped Swedes achieve their unusually high levels of happiness.
Now, as Sweden’s neighbor Finland tops this year’s Northern European happiness league, Finnish writers and pundits are getting in on the act, tossing their own mythologized national mental attitude—called sisu—into the crowded Nordic life-hack market.
Sisu’s tenets seem positively raw-knuckled compared to the plush domesticity of hygge and the moderate self-care involved in lagom. Sisu, it seems, is an internalized sense of stamina and staying power that helps people stay active and engaged, a kind of grit that allows people to accept life’s downs without being bowed by them. Activities imbued with sisu cited in the latest media trawl include invigorating yourself by jumping into icy lakes and getting into practical decision-making quickly by avoiding small talk. If that all sounds too unpleasant or culturally specific, don’t worry. For those in search of sisu-lite, there’s also a range of skin care products called Sisu containing Finnish-sounding ingredients like pine bark, so you can simply spritz yourself with a sense of inner resilience.
What’s wrong with this, you might ask? As a set of precepts, nothing really. Adopting a little fortitude and stoicism could surely be of great help in a frequently frigid country like Finland, and many sisu tips sound like generally welcome self-care rebranded with a scent of birch sap. On top of all this, sisu is unique among the Nordic philosophies of contentment in that it’s more than a little dark. In providing guidance for happiness, it acknowledges that the world is a fundamentally cruel and harsh place where your best hope remains merely, like Voltaire’s Candide, to work in the garden. As a window into a world view, this isn’t uninteresting. Likewise, across the Baltic, there is nothing wrong with copying Swedes or Danes by not overdoing either your work or spending, or maybe getting a bulk order of candles before daylight saving kicks in.
The problem lies more in the fact that, off their home turf, sisu, hygge, and lagom are being used as a woo-heavy explanation for why Nordic citizens seem happy while downplaying the real-world conditions that make their contentment feasible. By advocating hygge as a source of joy and security in, say, Danish women’s lives, there’s a risk of glossing over the fact that their relative equality was won through hard battles with institutions over many decades. Danish women didn’t get where they are today by making mulled wine and staying in by candlelight.
Likewise, a focus on lagom implies that Sweden’s excellent work-life balance comes from some innate Swedish sense of cultural reasonableness that inevitably produces relative social harmony. The reality is that the nation’s enviable working conditions were forged by Sweden’s unions who—in the teeth of fierce, decidedly immoderate resistance by major employers—managed to broker an unusually sweet, enduring deal between workers and employers in 1938.
There’s something a little queasy about such nationalist mysticism. To locate Finland’s success in sisu is to suggest Finns possess an exotic source of inner strength that—like their twilit winters, their interminable words, and their sturdy furniture—can only remain opaque and ineffable to whingeing, hysterical Americans. Rather than a how-to guide to building Nordic-style consensus, the marketing of sisu becomes a birch twig for Anglophone liberal self-laceration. They’re the icebound equivalent of those hate-yourself books that insist every French woman, by some stroke of Gallic sorcery, is stick-thin despite subsisting entirely on cheese.
In a further irony, the Nordic lifestyle buzzwords are trending just as the social safety net that has made the region one of the world’s least unequal is starting to fray. Sweden may have high living standards and relatively low inequality, but it has witnessed sustained welfare cuts and now a growing wealth gap to match. Inequality is rising in Denmark too, with the average assets of the country’s wealthiest 10 percent going up by close to $60,000 between 2015 and 2017. Meanwhile, Finland has let its interesting micro-experiments with universal basic income lapse.
This doesn’t mean that the Nordic countries’ high wealth levels and low inequality aren’t enviable—they remain at world-beating levels. But it’s still uncomfortable to watch trend-hunters ascribe the Nordic sense of security to individual personality traits just as the real motor of that security is sputtering. Something real and tangible—and hard to emulate—made these societies successful, stable, and content. Something tells me it wasn’t wearing socks at the office.