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Actor Rainn Wilson on what he learned traveling the world in search of well-being


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: There's a new series out this month about traveling the wide world looking for the happiest places on Earth.

You might be surprised by the travel guide, though, a man that many know for being stuck in an office.

Geoff Bennett caught up with actor Rainn Wilson to discuss his journey. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Rainn Wilson, Actor: I don't want to be this cold.

Geoff Bennett: Wilson travels far and wide, from Iceland.

Rainn Wilson: And I'm scared.

Woman: Your only goal now is to go in this ocean and surrender.

Rainn Wilson: All right.

Woman: Do you know what you have just done?

Rainn Wilson: I put have my country away.

Geoff Bennett: To Ghana.

Woman: Very important.

Rainn Wilson: Ready to start with a clean mind, an open mind, and new experience.

Geoff Bennett: And beyond in a six-part series called "Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss."

Wilson is recognizable to many as Dwight Schrute from "The Office," the critically acclaimed mockumentary sitcom series that ran for nine seasons on NBC. Over the years, he has taken on other projects from films such as "Juno"...

Rainn Wilson: This is one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet.

Geoff Bennett: To more recently "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story."

While he continued the comedic work, he also turned inward, asking bigger life questions through a media company he founded called SoulPancake and with a book released this spring, "Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution."

And welcome to the "NewsHour."

Rainn Wilson joined me from a recording studio to be to explain why he literally took the plunge.

With this new series, you wanted to find the key to inner happiness and you went around the world looking for it. What did you discover?

Rainn Wilson: Iceland, Ghana, West Africa, Bulgaria and Thailand. And then back to Los Angeles to see if I could take what I found about bliss, joy, happiness, well-being and apply it to my life back at home.

And to boil it all down, it's not any great mystery. The thing that I really came away with in my heart about finding bliss is, it's all about connection. It's all about community. It's not a big surprise. The people that were the most vital and lived the most meaningful lives did so in relationship with others.

Geoff Bennett: It's interesting. I used the word happiness and you used the word bliss. Do you see a difference between the two things?

Rainn Wilson: I do. I have a -- personally, I have a problem with the word happiness, because happiness is a result of certain things being in place.

You know what I mean? Like you, you lick an ice cream cone and a butterfly lands on your shoulder and you feel happy. Well, the next day, you can go like an ice cream cone and wait for a butterfly and maybe feel miserable and anxious and worried about the next day.

So what are actions that you can take in your life, what are initiatives that you can take, what's an outlook that you can shift, a perspective to tweak in order to achieve what experts in that field really call well-being, you know, that sense of being connected, grounded, joyful, and alive and vibrant on the inside?

Geoff Bennett: In this series, you lay bare your personal challenges publicly. How did you feel about that initially? Was there any reservation?

Rainn Wilson: You know, maybe I have just been in therapy for too long. I have no problem talking about my struggles and my issues, my traumas, difficulties that I have had. And I talk about my anxiety disorder and depression and other issues.

And so, for me, this journey was a personal journey, as well as anything else. I wanted to find out some of these answers that -- we Americans, we can be a little arrogant sometimes. Maybe we have got something to learn from the people of Ghana and the people of Thailand and the people of Iceland.

And I was excited to try that out both on myself as kind of a guinea pig and to share my findings.

Geoff Bennett: Traveling to find contentment or bliss is not something that most people can do. Based on your travels, how can people find that closer to home or within?

Rainn Wilson: What we're trying to do on the show is not that travel is going to make you happy, but what can we learn from other cultures that we can apply at home?

And I think that there is of a wealth of evidence out there for all kinds of the things that we're discovering. For instance, in Iceland, I did a cold plunge in the Arctic Ocean with a group of powerful, amazing Viking women that every morning they sing songs and hold hands and they walk into the Arctic Ocean.

Well, cold plunge therapy is something that you can do at home. You can do it in your shower. You don't need to have a fancy cold plunge in order to do it. And the Vikings have been doing it for thousands of years.

Geoff Bennett: There is a spiritual thread throughout your recent work, Rainn. You also have a book calling for a spiritual revolution. The book is called "Soul Boom."

And you write that we as a culture have discounted spirituality, that we have moved away from faith, we have moved away from the sacred, and that we need to return to it. Tell me more about that.

Rainn Wilson: Well, the thesis of the book is that we have kind of thrown the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater.

In Western culture, especially in big city America, we have so uniformly rejected religion, for -- a lot of times for very good reasons. You know, we have suffered a lot of trauma at the hands of religion. Some terrible acts of barbarity have been done in the name of an all-loving God. And I understand why people have left.

But there are spiritual tools at the foundation of all of the world's great faith traditions that we can draw from that can transform our lives, and, more importantly, that we can use to help transform our society.

Geoff Bennett: How does being spiritual, being faithful translate to the work you do in Hollywood?

Rainn Wilson: Well, that's a great question. They're often at odds.

But I do feel that, in the spirit of the divine creator, the creative force that pulses through every molecule in this physical plane and an infinite other number of planes past this one, that the act of entertaining can be a service. And I think people that have loved and watched "The Office" for decades now feel a great sense of peace and calm and serenity in the watching of the show.

And it uplifts their hearts and souls. And I get to be a part of that. So there's a service element. And that essential element of creating something where there's nothing, being an artist, there's a blank page, there's a blank stage, there's a silent room, and you get to be a part of creating something beautiful, rich, and magical.

I think that is a divine process. I think there's a sacredness and a sublimity to it.

Geoff Bennett: I'd never thought of it in that way, that the work you do as an actor in some ways is a ministry.

On the other hand, to lots of people, you will forever be associated with your standout character on the office, Dwight Schrute. As you see it, is that a blessing or a burden?


Rainn Wilson: A little bit of both.

I mean, I played dozens of roles before I played Dwight, and I have played a good dozen or more since I finished playing Dwight. That's the one that has found a nerve with audiences, and they love me for it. And, listen, I'm so grateful. I wouldn't have been able to write a book. It has opened so many doors for me.

Geoff Bennett: Rainn Wilson, a real pleasure to speak with you. Thanks for your time.

Rainn Wilson: Thanks for having me. Real pleasure.

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