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Sisu the Day: How Small, Swift Acts of Courage Can Prevent a Lifetime of Regrets

February 14, 2021 | by Hanna Perlberger

How many times have you wished you acted but didn’t, and then the opportunity was gone, sometimes forever?

Grit. Moxie. Holy chutzpah. And now “Sisu” – one of the latest terms making the rounds in Positive Psychology circles. Sisu is a Finnish word that has no direct translation but embodies the qualities of bravery, empowerment, inner strength, and the crazy recklessness that inspires someone to take on something in the face of incredible odds.

I know this is not exactly an academic source, but I liked the definition I came across in the Urban Dictionary: “It doesn’t take Sisu to go to the North Pole; it takes Sisu to stand at the door when the bear is on the other side.”

Unlike resilience, hardiness, and the search for meaning – which are long game ventures – Sisu is urgent, the bold undertaking of a mission that could be kamikaze, were it not for a micro slim chance of success. Sisu is the very opposite of analysis paralysis. But don’t get me wrong; it’s not a fool’s errand, but rather a heroic and noble gesture for something quite worthy.

How often have you had an instinct to call someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time or felt the urge to do an impromptu act of generosity, big or small?

Did you ever think of telling the stranger at the checkout line that you thought her haircut was fabulous, but you balked at talking to a stranger? How about the regret of playing it safe when you failed to interrupt someone who was badmouthing a friend or someone you happen to admire? Or the deeper pangs of regret when a loved one dies, and you feel ashamed and incomplete?

How many times have you wished you acted but didn’t, and then the opportunity was gone, sometimes forever?

What keeps getting in the way of our better instincts?

Often, when we get the urge to do something good, our brain comes up with excuses or reasons why it’s not a great idea, or no biggie if we let it go. For example, you pass the homeless person on the street. While your first inclination may be to drop a dollar in the bucket, if you don’t happen to have easy access to a buck in your pocket, the thoughts start to bubble up. It’s not a good idea to root around in your purse or take out your wallet; after all, you should never display money out on the street, what with all the pickpockets and muggers. And come to think of it, that homeless person looked a little drunk or high, and you certainly don’t want to fuel addiction. And… and… By now, you’re halfway down the block anyway. Oh well. You meant to help.

The Five-Second Rule that Can Literally Change Everything

In her book, “The Five Second Rule,” Mel Robbins, posits that the moment we have the instinct to act on a commitment or goal, we have a 5-second window of opportunity before the brain shuts us down. When we hesitate to act, the brain interprets that as danger or uncertainty and devises ways to be protective.

When inspiration hits, states Robbins, before you hesitate, you should immediately count backward 5–4–3–2–1 and then move physically. The backward count (as opposed to forward, where you can keep adding to the numbers) is finite and acts as a “pattern interrupt.” The point is to interrupt the ingrained thinking patterns that keep you inactive and accustom your brain to act while disconnecting from feelings that drag you down. After all, no one really feels like acting outside his or her comfort zone. And furthermore, by moving, the change in physiology disrupts the inclination to remain inert.

Sisu the Moment

Emilia Lahti, who studies Sisu and how it applies to our lives, explains: “It is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination. Sisu provides the final empowering push, when we would otherwise hesitate to act.”

Before your brain can convince you of all of the reasons not to act, count 5–4–3–2–1 and then get up and do the thing your heart tells you that you need to do.

Chances are something is popping up into your mind right now as you read these words, and it doesn’t have to be heroic or death-defying. It could be the apology you’re embarrassed to make, the medical procedure you’re delaying to schedule, or words of love you don’t dare to say. Before your brain can convince you of all of the reasons not to act, count 5–4–3–2–1 and then get up and do the thing your heart tells you that you need to do.

Says Robbins, “The moment you move is the moment you discover your strength. The best time to do it is when your heart tells you to. Life becomes harder when we hold our greatest selves back by listening to fears and convincing

If Not Now, When?

Never leave something important unsaid or undone. With a little Sisu and the ability to count from 5 to 1, small acts of heart-based courage and spontaneous acts of valor could transform your life in a big way.

Photo Credit: Steve Halama,


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