Picture of Katja Pantzar surrounded by images related to her life
A dream job took Katja Pantzar from Vancouver to Helsinki almost 20 years ago. She has since made a career covering discoveries about the Nordic lifestyle. Image: Julia Helminen

DO I KNOW YOU? “The meaning of sisu lives, grows and changes,” says Katja Pantzar

After moving to Finland, author Katja Pantzar has turned her discoveries on Nordic-style wellbeing into two books and numerous media appearances globally. We caught up with Katja to discuss the power of simple actions, the modern definition of sisu and her new projects.

Eeva Haaramo

17.08.2022

Author, journalist and speaker Katja Pantzar has a unique perspective on her native country of Finland. Although she was born here, she grew up in Canada, studied in the UK and spent several years in New Zealand as a child. When a dream job eventually took Katja back to Helsinki, it was meant to be for a year. It wasn’t love at first sight, but as Katja started to see past the stereotypes of saunas and cinnamon buns, she discovered a Nordic approach to wellbeing built on practicality, resilience (or ‘sisu’) and a close relationship with nature. 

Now, almost 20 years later, Katja has her roots firmly in the Finnish capital and has turned her discoveries into two wellbeing books, The Finnish Way and Everyday Sisu. The books address everything from diet and everyday activity to tackling sustainability and solving homelessness and have captured an international audience. The first book has already been translated to 23 languages. 

Good News from Finland met up with Katja to talk about sisu 2.0, how wellbeing intertwines with the Nordic lifestyle and getting addicted to winter swimming.

Katja Pantzar biking in winter Helsinki

Katja doesn’t own a car and instead walks, bikes or uses public transit to get around Helsinki. Image: Katja Tähjä

What inspired you to write wellbeing books based on the Nordic lifestyle?

One big factor was having grown up in North America and gone to school in the UK, both places where I had experienced wellbeing as something that was often very complicated. It involved money, personal trainers and specific diets. That approach changed when I moved to Finland. I fell in love with the Nordic idea that wellbeing is for everyone regardless of their background, body type, age or income. You can go for a swim in the sea, walk in nature or go to the sauna, and it is accessible to everybody.  

I grew up predominantly in Vancouver, which has beautiful nature. But nature in many parts of North America is often a destination at the end of a car trip. Here it is an everyday, nearby experience. According to a recent study, every person living in Finland is, on average, within 200 metres of nature and green space. I really fell in love with this idea because it seemed that in a great many other places in the world your socioeconomic status affects your access to nature. 

Another factor was my own story of struggling with depression and anxiety. I got help from realising there were these really simple lifestyle choices such as riding my bike to work that I could make to help keep my mental and physical health in balance, and I thought this is something other people could benefit from knowing about. There is a wealth of information about the benefits of functional exercise, such as cycling as a form of transport, and spending time in nature, for example, and most of it is relatively easy and straightforward stuff that could help a lot of people. But nobody was really writing about it for the international market. 

How are your two books different? 

The first book is more of an overview of everything Finnish that I could squeeze in through the lens of wellbeing. So everything from the approach to nutrition, nature, respect for others and sauna, for example. Also, my goal was to guide the reader through unique cultural experiences such as the quintessential Finish steam bath and explain what its many health benefits are – necessary for people who haven’t grown up in sauna culture. 

[The book] was also about getting over some of the North Americanness in me. For example, realising that people choose to ride their bikes in Helsinki instead of driving cars. Initially, it seemed a wonderful but slightly radical idea to me, since in many parts of North America there’s a mentality that if you don’t have a car, you’re not cool.  

Katja Pantzar picture behind a Hay festival sign

In May 2022, Katja was one of the speakers at the renowned Hay Literature Festival in Wales, UK. Image: Instagram / Katja Pantzar

The second book, again through the lens of sisu and resilience, continues on these themes. It’s a follow-up that further explores many issues related to wellbeing, but also dives into how we can use sisu to solve some of the big challenges of our time, like sustainability, homelessness and our food supply issues. I look at many Finnish solutions and innovations that can help us. For example, Finland is a leader in coming up with a very simple solution to homelessness, which is providing homes to people who don’t have them. It’s very difficult turning your life around if you’re living on the streets. 

There is also a major, global mental health crisis underway. Pre-pandemic, the statistics were pretty alarming: one billion people lived with a mental health issue, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). People suffer from depression for many reasons, including the challenging state of the world, eco-anxiety and online-digital 24/7 lifestyles that lack connection to nature and other human beings. But there are a lot of small steps we can take to try to tackle the challenges that we all face, whether it’s leading a more sustainable lifestyle and thinking about what we eat and consume, or standing up to bullies. 

So the second book looks at how we need to take care of each other and the planet, and how that relates to our mental and physical wellbeing.

You talk a lot about the power of sisu. Yet you also mention many Finns have an outdated idea of it. What do you mean by that?

In my experience some Finns of a particular generation think of sisu as something hard and tough that they learnt about in school, with historical examples of wartime victories and Olympic successes, many of which feature accomplishments by men.

As a result, some people see sisu as a static idea that hasn’t changed with the times and are surprised to hear that there’s new, ongoing research into the concept. For example, Elisabet Lahti, the world’s pre-eminent and pioneering sisu researcher is just completing her PhD on the topic. In addition, there are a lot of people who have moved to Finland from other cultures and have a very strong sense of what the word means. So, the meaning of sisu is far from static, it lives, grows and changes as a type of a mindset and way of life.

A modern-day definition for sisu is that it’s a unique type of fortitude in the face of challenges, big and small. It can be simply getting yourself out of the door when it’s minus 20 outside. Or having a difficult conversation with your spouse or someone at work instead of putting it off. It’s about maintaining a level of healthy resilience, and it can be small daily activities like walking or cycling or talking to a friend that boost wellbeing. It doesn’t need to be something huge, like a wartime victory or running an Olympic marathon.

Helsinki's central library Oodi

One of Katja’s favourite places to take her son is Oodi, Helsinki’s new central library. Image: Kuvio

Lahti’s work has helped move sisu’s definition more into the realm of positive psychology, a kind of sisu 2.0. It is like a muscle that you can flex, you can tap into it and it can have an impact on you and your life. Positive sisu is the resilience of doing something, instead of the kind of sisu where you are stubborn and won’t ask for help. 

I’ve experienced burnout and depression, and part of a good healthy sense of sisu is asking for help and saying: “Look, I can’t do this any more, I need help”. Also, being able to realise that I need to readjust what I’m doing or how I’m working or how I’m living is a way to maintain resilience. Much of Finland’s history has been about responding to the constant need to adapt and change, whether on the political, environmental or technological front. 

You were born in Finland but grew up mainly in Canada. What took you back to Finland?

A dream job! I was living in Toronto and wanted to understand my Finnish roots better, but I didn’t speak Finnish very well. I had this idea that I’d like to live in Europe for a while and brush up on my Finnish, but I also wanted to see more of the world. 

I saw a job posting for a temporary position as a writer and editor for an English-language magazine, Blue Wings, published by Sanoma in Finland. I got the job, and it was actually a dream job as it involved travel at a time when media budgets were generous so I got to travel the world while working in magazine publishing and learn all about different cultures.

For many years, I spent around 150 days a year travelling. I went to so many different countries from Asia to Europe and North America, often with a photographer and really got to research and write hands-on stories. At the same time, I was learning more about Finland and became obsessed with this pragmatic Nordic approach to wellbeing. Initially, I thought my time in Finland would be temporary, a year or two, and then I would go back to Toronto, but that was almost 20 years ago and happily I’m still here. 

People waiting for their turn to swim at Katajanokka dock.

Katja enjoys living close to the sea and Helsinki’s many swimming spots, such as Katajanokka dock. Image: Katja Pantzar

Can you pinpoint a reason why you stayed?

I appreciate living in a bookish, thinking culture where society functions fairly well and the quality of life is high. Add to that being able to swim in the sea every morning year-round, and that’s part of the formula for a lifestyle that boosts wellbeing. For example, if I lived with my son in Vancouver, where I grew up (or in another North American city for that matter), we would likely spend several hours a day travelling by car out of necessity. It would be much more difficult to live a car-free life and we wouldn’t necessarily be able to walk, bike or take public transit safely everywhere. 

It’s also about shared values such as an excellent public school system. My son is 12 years old. If he is talented and wants to go to Sibelius Academy [the highest-level music academy in Finland], he has as good of a chance and opportunity as anyone else. Not because he has been sent to special private prep schools or has parents who know the right people or because of money. I feel the equality of life is quite good here.

What things surprised you the most, in good or bad, when moving back to Finland?

The number one thing was realising how little I actually knew. I spent many summer holidays here as a child, so I thought I understood the country and the culture, but I really didn’t. 

One surprising element has been how Finns don’t realise how fortunate and well-off they are, but this actually neatly ties into resilience. When you’re humble, you’re better able to adapt to change and challenge without resting on your laurels and boasting about how great you are. This attitude can be very empowering because it keeps you grounded but also helps whatever challenges life may throw your way.

Katja Pantzar holding her book Everyday Sisu

Everyday Sisu: Tapping into Finnish Fortitude for a Happier, More Resilient Life is Katja’s second book exploring the Nordic approach to wellbeing. Image: Katja Pantzar

Is there something you think Finns could learn from the Canadians?

To smile! I still don’t fully understand why sometimes when you say hi to people whom you see frequently at work or in your neighbourhood, they don’t respond. When I worked at Yle, the public broadcaster, there were people in senior positions whom I saw in the newsroom almost every day. I would say hi and they would just look back, expressionless, which I found odd. That is the only thing that really sticks high in my mind. My son and I have a running joke that we’re going to start a business offering smiling lessons for Finns. 

Do you practice what you preach? In other words, what advice from your books have you incorporated into your own life?

I swim in the sea just about every day, year-round. I don’t own a car and ride my bike, walk or take public transport to get around. I make an effort to spend time in nature daily. I also try to eat a balanced, healthy and somewhat planet-friendly diet. Sometimes I eat treats, but I know that I will feel better mentally and physically if I make sure that I eat vegetables and berries every day.

I do try to practise what I preach. I also make an effort to move towards the things that are inspiring and constructive rather than destructive. If there are people or communities or work situations, for example, that are really destructive, I’ll gently say that maybe I’m not the right person for this project and move on to other projects because if there is too much politicking, nastiness or dysfunction, life is too short for spending unnecessary time in that kind of environment.

Katja's son standing on the share of Vallisaari island

Living a car-free life close to nature would be much harder for Katja and her son if they lived back in North America. Image: Katja Pantzar

I understood you are an avid ice swimmer. What initially convinced you to try the sport?  

I was at a dinner party where there was a group of women slightly older than me who all regularly winter swim. One of them invited me to try it out. I accepted the invitation thinking that as a journalist I needed to give it a go. I certainly didn’t know about the wellbeing benefits, and I thought it would be just a one-off experience. 

When I went the first time, it was February. It was a dark, sleety night. We were standing on the pier in our bathing suits and I was thinking, this doesn’t make any sense. Yet, I’m watching all these smiling people going back and forth in and out of the water. The first time I went, I was in for a few seconds and it hurt. But when I came out of the water, I felt a sense of euphoria. We went into the sauna to warm up and I said to my friend, “should we try that again”? 

I had never felt that kind of a rush. After the dip, I felt like I just had a full body massage and 12 hours of sleep. I was really energised and not stressed or worried about anything.

For the first three to six months, I was ice swimming for the post-dip rush but it was really difficult and felt uncomfortable. Then, gradually I built up my cold resistance and became addicted. Now I’ll go every morning and it’s my way to wake up. Then, if I’m feeling tired or stressed, I might go again in the afternoon for another dip. It’s kind of a reset, and all my pains and aches and fatigue disappear. 

Now I also winter swim for the sense of community and the inspiration, as the people at our ice swimming club are amazing. They’re such characters. Then there’s this group of 70- to 80-year-old women and men who go regularly, and they’re in fabulous shape mentally and physically.

I’m guessing ice swimming would be part of your ideal Sunday?

If I had a free Sunday, I would go for a morning dip and sauna and then do some sort of exercise. I’d go with a friend or family for a very long walk somewhere in nature, possibly one of the islands dotting the Helsinki waterfront, and not look at the time.

Katja Pantzar ice swimming in the sea by Helsinki

It took Katja Pantzar three to six months to build up her cold resistance and really start to enjoy ice swimming. Now she is addicted to her morning dip. Image: Katja Tähjä

Your latest book came out in March. What are you focusing on next, are there more books in the pipeline?

Actually, my agent is waiting for a long-overdue proposal for a third instalment in the wellbeing series. There are so many topics and new information that is relevant in these challenging times.  

I’m also working on a children’s book. Although I’m not sure yet whether it’s going to be a children’s book or a book with illustrations for kids of all ages.

Then there is a foray into fiction. I inherited some diaries written in the 1930s by my great uncle, who died in the war. He starts the diaries with, “I’m a young man, who will likely die in the war. This is my story. And dear reader, I hope you can keep an open mind and not judge me as you read”. The novel will be partly based on his diaries. He didn’t live a very typical life, there were all kinds of twists and turns, and some of his writing was reportedly destroyed by his mother who didn’t approve of what he wrote. 

He also took hundreds of black-and-white photos in the 1930s that are all numbered and captioned. It’s incredible how well he has documented everything. Also, his penmanship is so beautiful that it’s like a work of art. The diaries and photos sat for many, many years carefully wrapped in plastic until I started reading them. All around, it’s quite a story, with so many cinematic elements that read like a movie.

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