Season 1
From the Travel Journal: How to Happy

How can a country locked in cold and darkness for 9 months of the year be full of the happiest people on Earth?


This week on Passport, we head to Helsinki to explore the giant, city-sized underground bunker Finland has been building for decades. It’s something that sets Finland apart from almost anywhere else on the planet; it’s the only country with an underground “master plan”. But in exploring why the Finns have a super-bunker designed to help them survive any manner of earthly or manmade disasters, what we actually ended up discovering is the real secret behind not just Finnish survival, but Finnish thriving

How is a country locked in cold and darkness for 9 months of the year and subject to some of the harshest conditions possible full of people who are so happy – in fact, THE Happiest People on Earth? People who trust each other? And people who take joy in some of the simplest and weirdest activities we’ve ever heard of? We recorded this episode of Passport before the pandemic brought the world to its knees. Before protests and unrest had overtaken American cities. And in light of that, and with a new sense of urgency, we revisit that question to look for answers – a road map – whatever we can find – to help us all get through the times we’re currently in. And have no fear – we have fun too, because it turns out the World Air Guitar and Hobby Horse Championships are part of the answer.


When we talk about importing – we usually mean tangible stuff. The physical gadgets and gizmos and tchotchkes that can be loaded onto a container ship and sent off far and wide for the world to enjoy. It’s a modern marvel of technology and progress that most of us haven’t had to think that deeply about just how all this stuff got here. There the hand sanitizer, 1,000-Piece Votes for Women puzzle, and Spicy Jelly Trio always were, just sitting on the shelves and later in our online carts, ready for us to pick it or click it. 

Of course, all that changed the moment COVID-19 completely upended the world’s fragile supply chain  – and so much more. COVID-19 pulled the scales from our eyes so that, as I sit here now writing this on a computer imported from China, my hair pulled back with a clip from Mexico, my neck swaddled in a scarf from Thailand, and drinking some sparkly water from an exotic place called LaCrosse, WI – it’s like I’m finally seeing the Matrix. My tangible world exists the way it does because we trade things across cultures and countries. 

Despite how disrupted it all got in the last few months, the truth is us humans have this importing/exporting game DOWN. I mean, Adam Smith is pouring some imported Chilean wine out right now over just how amazingly interconnected and specialized and efficient our production has become. (Fair and equitable distribution of those goods is another engraving ball of wax, of course). In the 21st century, if someone else can make it better, faster, or cheaper than you can – they probably do. If you don’t have the resources to make something or to make it better – you find someone who can. Leave the computer chips to Southeast Asia, the lemon curd to the UK, and the badminton rackets to Brazil.

BUT… are iPhones and lemon curd really what we need right now? Is that what our world is lacking? Will all that stuff save us?

What if we could find a way to take that same idea of importing – that same supply chain logic – and apply it to something much bigger and more important than stuff. What if, finding ourselves depleted of the internal resources we require, we could find a way to import more of them at a time when we needed it most.

The Finnish people consistently rate as one of the happiest people on the planet. And many Finns attribute that happiness to one specific word – a national character trait – that is so deeply ingrained in the Finnish mindset and culture that it’s almost become part of their DNA… 



Sisu is a word without a literal equivalent in English. For decades, Finns and English-speakers alike have tried to find the words that adequately describe exactly what it is. Here’s how it was put in a 1940, WW2 era Time Magazine article, the first time the word was presented to an American audience:

“The Finns have something they call sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate sisu as “the Finnish spirit” but it is a much more gutful word than that. Last week the Finns gave the world a good example of sisu by carrying the war into Russian territory on one front while on another they withstood merciless attacks by a reinforced Russian Army. In the wilderness that forms most of the Russo-Finnish frontier between Lake Laatokka and the Arctic Ocean, the Finns definitely gained the upper hand.”

— Time magazine, January 8, 1940

Wikipedia describes sisu as “stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness and is held by Finns themselves to express their national character.”

So, guts, resilience, and perseverance. There, we did it! We translated sisu. Those were all words. But using a bunch of words to define a concept is not the same as understanding it. Feeling it. To do that, we have to get into the guts of the word, as it were. 

Cultures create words for things they need words for. That sounds obvious – but really let that sink in. The words a language has for things – or doesn’t – can tell you so much about that culture. What they value. What they need. How they see the world. And how they see themselves. There’s the cliche about the Inuit having 50 words for snow. That’s not an accident. And guess what? The Sami – the indigeonouse people of Northern Scandinavia, including Finland – have 300 terms to describe snow and ice. But that’s nothing. They have 1,000 terms devoted to describing reindeer; words describing every detail of a reindeer’s appearance, their behavior, their movements… even their personalities. Here’s a glossary of just a few of them. One of my favorites: 

Ravdaboazu; a reindeer that keeps at the edge of the herd (especially females).

Finally, a word that describes me at parties. 

The point is. Language is POWERFUL. When we give something a name – a very specific and eloquent name – we name it into existence. We make it a ‘thing’. And, given a name, that something becomes seen. Something you even know to look for in the first place. 

In Finland, sisu is more than a word. It’s a feeling that has seeped into their subconscious and has become part of the lens through which they view the world and their own lives. Sisu is the powerful editorial voice in the story Finns tell themselves about what they’re capable of, what they’re able to withstand, and how they should view the challenges that face them. 

And stories are everything. For us at Passport, our guiding principle is that a good traveler doesn’t follow the itinerary, they follow the story. Stories can change the world. And they can also change you.



Finland’s landscapes are beautiful but unforgiving. Its climate is one of the harshest on earth; locked in darkness and cold for 9 months of the year. 

The Finns had a choice. They could see the environment as their unmerciful enemy and themselves as its powerless victim. And they could’ve ended up with a word that encapsulated all that melancholy and powerlessness; a “cynicalogism”, if you will, that really nailed it. Instead, they have sisu. 

As that word entered into their vocabulary – it’s believed that it happened sometime in the 16th century – it eventually became something Finns internalized. Finns mention sisu all the time – in books, in TV, and in conversation. It even has its own emoji. Yeah, Finland made their own slate of emojis.

Today, they also use it to describe people who’ve stood up to injustice, no matter how daunting the challenge, to pursue change. Hell, yeah.

And by the way, sisu is not all good. Someone can have too much sisu – meaning they’re bullheaded or stubborn. But by naming that special brand of fortitude and stick-to-iveness and resilience that they needed to survive – the Finns seem to have created a piece of self-fulfilling vocabulary.

Faced with unholy freezing temperatures? Skate on some sea ice

Dealing with a lot of time spent indoors? Build a sauna and sweat it out. Even in Burger King

And faced with only a month or two of nice, warm weather? Make use of every moment of it. The Finns are famous for their utterly weird and comical championships. The Finns will turn almost anything into an excuse to have fun. Finland is home to just some of the following competitions:

Finland’s official travel website has a list of 6 steps to be happy like a Finn. You can even go to their Instagram TV page and “Rent a Finn” for advice on being happy.

There are some great ideas there. But in looking through these lists and videos, it became clear that the real secret behind Finn’s happiness is their embrace of sisu. It’s what makes all the things on any happiness checklist work. To be happy, you have to first think that it’s possible. You have to seek it out. You have to believe that you can find it. And, when you do find it, you have to be able to embrace the good times enough that they fortify you and refuel you for the inevitable hard times. The word makes it real, and that makes it possible. 

As our physical supply chain has been disrupted, so has our emotional one. People all across the world are suffering. They are anxious and scared. They are in grief – ambiguous and acute. And for some communities and people and families, the weight of it is nearly unbearable. People are tired and they are depleted of the strength and resilience required to go on. THAT is the resource in short supply right now. 

And so maybe it’s time to import some of that Finnish fortitude. Can a word really create a new reality? I don’t know. But I do know words have power. And people need all the power they can get right now. So I’m embracing the sisu spirit wherever I can find it. And the best part – there are no taxes or tariffs on this one. It’s free for the taking. If a word can change a story, let’s choose the ones we need.

Now, I’m headed off for some kalsarikänni, which means “drinking at home, alone, in your underwear.” You did it again, Finland…

To read more about sisu from Finns themselves, check out this article or read this book – Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage.


Image Credits:
Banner image: Photo by Carlos “Grury” Santos on UnsplashTemppeliaukio Church: Photo by iryota_gram via instagram
Reindeer: Photo by Marcus Lofvenberg on Unsplash
Forrest: Photo by Vincent Guth on Unsplash
Bridge over Water: Photo by Taneli Lahtinen on Unsplash
Air Guitar Championships: Photo by Anitagraser used under Creative Commons License Attribution 3.0 UnportedSwamp Football: Photo by used under creative commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Listen to Passport


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.