Sisu as Guts, Grace, and Gentleness - A Way of Life, Growth, and Being in Times of Adversity

Emilia Elisabet Lahti

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


In this dissertation, I explore the Finnish construct of sisu denoting the enigmatic human ability to surpass one's preconceived limitations in times of adversity. The partly autoethnographic dissertation was inspired by my own encounter with trauma and William James' century-old questions pertaining to the "limits of human power" and the differing "paths of access, or keys" between individuals accessing this inner strength (1907, p. 332). It presents sisu as a fundamental and universal phenomenon consisting of aspects such as transcendence, gentleness, interconnectedness, and our capacity to adjust our behavior to enable better life. Sisu is also described as an expression of gentle power through which one might not only survive but overcome and even find elevation for oneself in the course of one's journey. Gentle power points to sisu as a harmonious quality, as opposed to stubborn sisu that becomes harmful. The thesis contributes by enhancing our understanding of the conceptual foundation of sisu, while adding to a more culturally rich discourse on the human experience of overcoming adversity within the fields of psychology and humanities that have been criticized for not caring sufficiently for the social context of the human-related phenomena they research. By being inquisitive not only about "knowing" itself, but what might be good for me and the systems around me, the dissertation not only cares about "What is sisu?" but "What is good sisu?" and even, "What good is sisu?" It consists of a summary and three essays. The first essay presents the results of a survey and thematic analysis to lay a conceptual foundation for sisu and build some vocabulary around this previously under-researched but rich construct. The epistemological and ontological standpoint I have adopted views knowledge and human capacity as something ever-evolving that come into existence through experience and action. The second and third essay deploy a hermeneutic phenomenological research approach that included an autoethnographic field study to New Zealand consisting of a 2400-km/50-day ultra run and bicycle journey and a 2-month residency in a Chinese martial arts academy, to understand what overcoming challenges means, not as some-thing inferred and analyzed through second-hand sources or retrospectively, but against the backdrop of life-as-it-happens. Additionally, essay 3 examines sisu as gentle power through the framework of systems intelligence and its container of "thinking about one's thinking." Sisu as gentle power is explored theoretically in an essayistic form using my first-person observations as a student of Eastern martial arts which, I propose, run parallel to systems intelligence in their mutual emphasis on a kind of "reflective wisdom" that is a combination of presence, attunement, and focus on one's self-reflective process. The thesis develops a perspective of sisu as "a way of life" in the lived phenomenology of everyday experience.
Translated title of the contributionLujuus, lämpö ja lempeä arvokkuus: Sisu elämäntapana ja vahvuutena vastoinkäymisten keskellä
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • Järvilehto, Lauri, Supervising Professor
  • Saarinen, Esa, Thesis Advisor
  • Martela, Frank, Thesis Advisor
Print ISBNs978-952-64-0871-2
Electronic ISBNs978-952-64-0872-9
Publication statusPublished - 2022
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)


  • sisu
  • gentle power
  • qualitative research
  • phenomenology
  • autoethnography


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