Rainn Wilson doesn't hold back: "Here's the guy from 'The Office' talking about suffering and death"

The actor discusses travel show "Geography of Bliss," learning to grieve and the secret to "The Office" success

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 26, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Rainn Wilson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Rainn Wilson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Rainn Wilson went looking for happiness in Bulgaria. For his new Peacock series, "The Geography of Bliss," the former "Office" star went to the four corners of the earth, including one ranked among the most unhappy in the world, searching for the secrets of well-being. "As a matter of fact, there are a lot of happy people there," Wilson shared on "Salon Talks." "They just scowl in that particularly Slavic way."

The series, inspired by Eric Weiner's book of the same name, is a natural fit for the adventurous Emmy Award nominee. In his deeply personal latest book, "Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution," he ventures through the terrain of grief and the pursuit of joy, making a fact-based case for hope in an often hopeless world. And on "Geography," he looks at happiness through a cultural lens, unlocking what contentment looks like in places across multiple continents — and even right here at home. 

And what have all his wanderings shown him? "It's not that complicated," he said. "It's just about connection. It's just about community." During our conversation, Wilson talked about the high price of toxic masculinity, what suffering can teach us about happiness, and the life lessons that keep bringing people back to "The Office." "There's something," he said, "beautifully universal about it."

Watch Rainn Wilson on "Salon Talks" here, or read about our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I'm going to start you off with a softball question. What is happiness?

Wow, good one. Happiness is a tricky word for me and this is why social scientists and psychologists really use the term "well-being," which I think is more all-encompassing. It includes bliss, contentment, meaning, all of those fun things. Because happiness is such a residual effect. Happiness is, "Oh, I had a sip of the coffee, and a butterfly landed on this tree, and I feel happy." But then you'll try and recapture that. You'll try and have a sip of coffee and hope for a butterfly, and you won't necessarily feel it. So, "What can we do to increase well-being?" is a more valid question and a more practical and applicable question. That's what it is. It's about a series of choices and decisions that you can make that doesn't allow you to be a passive victim of your emotions, that can increase the quality of your life.

"The Geography of Bliss" looks at what we can learn from other cultures and other places in the world. You go to these different places, which are not destinations I would have expected. You upend expectations. 

"The Geography of Bliss" is a travel show, and instead of sampling delicious foods, I am looking for happiness, well-being, bliss, whatever you want to call it. We Americans can get very arrogant in the fact of, "Our way of life is the best way of life." But can we get humble and really learn from other cultures? What can we learn and apply to our own culture? We went to Iceland, Ghana, West Africa, Bulgaria, which is actually one of the most unhappy countries in the world, to see what we could learn there, and Thailand, and then back home to the United States.

There's a part in the show where you say, "Anywhere I go, I feel like, I could live here." I think a lot of us as Americans do feel that way, that the answer is changing my space as opposed to, how can I find these feelings in my own home? I really love the Bulgaria episode, because you met lots of happy people there. 

"Hey kids, here's the guy from 'The Office' talking about suffering and death."

I did. Bulgaria is an interesting situation because they have been oppressed for literally thousands of years, and so they are not trusting. There's such corruption and such a lack of belief in their government that any and all happiness you would find in a place like Bulgaria has to do with families and small friend groups. If you stay small, people are very happy. If you start to widen the scope, they're very distrustful. And if you're distrustful of your environment, that's going to breed anxiety and that's not going to lead you to too much happiness. But as a matter of fact, there are a lot of happy people there. They just scowl in that particularly Slavic way, and they don't share it very much.

Our perceptions of happiness — or contentment or bliss — are different across the world. You come up with some markers, though, of what you found in these different cultures. Tell me what some of them are. 

It's interesting because people ask, they want to know, "Boil it down. What's the takeaway?" That's not quite your question, but I'm going to just jump into that and just say that it's not that complicated. When I came back from the journey, it was like, "It's not that complicated. It's just about connection. It's just about community. It's about the bonds of friendship and bonds of intimacy and trust that you develop, certainly with family members, but expand that a little bit more to your community, to your area where you live. Your school, your people." That's where the greatest bliss lies.

Wherever you travel in the world, it's all about that connectivity. We are social creatures. We thrive in connection, in communion, in collaboration with each other. That's how I'd really boil it down. In Thailand, Buddhism and spiritual practice helps connect people. In Ghana, there is an incredible spirit of optimism for the future that connects people, where they feel like, "Hey, we're on the cutting edge of a new Africa and we're headed in the right direction. In another 10, 20, 50 years our lives of our children and grandchildren are going to be way better." So that's pretty exciting. And then Iceland is really one of the happiest places in the world, and no one does community better. They bathe together, they create art together, they journey into and commune with nature in some really extraordinary ways. That's my main takeaway.

You are telling a story that's in relation to your father and to your son, and this beautiful sense of and intimacy and closeness. And yet I see a lot of men struggling with these ideas about emotion, closeness, love. There are a lot of men out there in pain.


You're telling why men need to find these connections. What's the case you can make for that?

"We are social creatures. We thrive in connection, in communion, in collaboration with each other."

I think that you hit the nail on the head. There's a lot of lost generations and there's a lot of great imbalance in contemporary American and western culture. One of the central ones is the inability of males, especially middle-aged males, to have a deep connection. Part of this is the collapse of the church and people leaving the church in droves, because the church used to drive that. I'm not necessarily advocating for everyone to go join the church, but the church was a transcendent community. Here's my community, and we're doing something more than just hanging out and playing poker. We're of service to something greater than ourselves and our own selfish, egoistic needs.

Male friendships are way down. Most middle-aged men describe their only real friendship as being their spouse. I don't want to use the phrase toxic masculinity. Oops, too late. I already used it. But this idea that men can't be vulnerable or share their emotions or have deeper connections, it's difficult. It's difficult for me and it's difficult for a large number of them. That's a really important aspect of finding well-being.

There's a moment in the show that hit me in the gut where you say, "I feel like there's still grief in me that hasn't yet come out." What has grief taught you? You write about the beauty of death and all of those wonderful things that we can think about that happen when we transcend, and yet when you lose someone you love, it sucks, Rainn.

I lost my father a few months into COVID of heart disease. I write about this in my book, "Soul Boom," and I explore it a little bit in "The Geography of Bliss" because it had such a profound impact on me. One of the things that really hit me, since we're looking at a social critique, is we don't culturally talk about death very much. 

"Most middle-aged men describe their only real friendship as being their spouse."

If we don't look at and examine death and what it is and the role that it plays in fulfilling our lives, then we don't know what grief is or how to grieve. If we don't know what grief is or how to grieve, then we're not really addressing suffering itself, and then we don't have resilience. All of this connects to the mental health epidemic that's going on with young people today. We're not talking about death, we're not talking about grief, we're not talking about suffering. We have less resilience, especially young folk. Emotional resilience is one of the main markers that psychologists point to, so it's super important that we be discussing these topics. 

That's why I wanted to share in great detail my grief and my struggles around learning how to grieve, because no one teaches me how to grieve. We don't know how to do it. I think what's culturally sanctioned is you cry for a week or two and then you're back to the job, and then just go back to your workaholic life. It's much more nuanced than that. There are times in my life when grief is overwhelming, and I would say still on a weekly basis I'm in some sort of grief for the loss of my father. And you know what? That's OK. That's really OK. We can live and grieve and celebrate joy at the same time because grief and joy, suffering and joy are on a balance. You can live with both of those. I think we try and suffocate grief, suffocate suffering, and try and strive for an unrealistic vision of happiness. Culturally, it's not doing us any favors. We're more medicated than ever and more disconnected than ever.

As this show and your book talk about, it's that tension, it's that experience of hardships, challenges and sufferings that enable us to experience happiness or contentment.

Suffering and death are two of my favorite topics. Hey kids, here's the guy from "The Office" talking about suffering and death. Because they frame life itself and they frame the joy and miracle and wonder of being alive. If we realize that we have a limited number of breaths that our lungs will take and that we're going to suffer along the way as we're taking those breaths, then the breaths that we're not suffering and that we are alive we get to savor in an even more rich way. And we allow ourselves to suffer. And then the only way out is through. The only way out is in, to quote the great Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and visionary. Then we can feel true joy and release. 

"I think we try and suffocate grief, suffocate suffering, and try and strive for an unrealistic vision of happiness."

It's been amazing to take these years of developing this show, "Geography of Bliss," and the book, "Soul Boom," to explore these big concepts. My life has been enriched from it. It really is. I'm in a much better place now than I was three years ago. I have an anxiety disorder. I talk about my anxiety, and I've learned how to embrace it, accept it, live with it, move through it thanks to some of the tools that I explore in this book and on this show.

Watching this show and reading your book got me thinking about "The Office" because it really is so beloved by people. It's an exploration of happiness, too. It's an exploration of what it really means to be an ordinary person in the world and finding happiness. Has it made you rethink Dwight and why the show is so meaningful to people? 

It's interesting that you say that. It has. I have a new perspective on "The Office" doing this other work around mental health and around spiritual journeys. The great showrunner, Greg Daniels, always said, "All we need in every episode is like five percent to 10 percent to just be real and human and emotional. The rest can be outrageous comedy. But if we ground it in that, that will allow people to connect." 

I think the final episode ends with Pam saying, "It's about finding the beauty in the ordinary things. Isn't that what it's all about?" I do think that "The Office" finds a tremendous amount of beauty in ordinary things, and that's what keeps people coming back and warms the cockles of their hearts and has created this incredible community of people that are "Office" fans. There's something beautifully universal about it. So it was a home run, win-win to get to do a terrific comedy show that makes people laugh but also warms hearts and brings people together. It doesn't get better than that. I really am #blessed.

"Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss" is now streaming on Peacock.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Geography Of Bliss Happiness Peacock Rainn Wilson Salon Talks Soul Boom Travel Tv Well-being