The actor Rainn Wilson, who is best known for playing Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” has been candid about his history with anxiety and depression. In 2008, he founded Soul Pancake, a digital media company that explores “life’s big questions” as part of his search for clarity. His struggle to find happiness has also led him to churn through therapists and self-help books.
When we spoke by phone, Wilson told me about crippling panic attacks he had in his 20s that would leave him on the floor, shaking and sweating. At first, he self-medicated — “I used a lot of drugs and alcohol,” he said. Since then, he has turned to Gestalt therapy and hypnosis, but anxiety is still something he deals with every day, he said.
Now, in a new travel series, “Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss,” Wilson explores some of the world’s happiest and unhappiest places in an attempt to unlock the secrets of well-being. The show was inspired by Eric Weiner’s best-selling memoir of the same name, and Wilson’s destinations were chosen from the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report, which rates life satisfaction in different nations.
When I asked for advice based on his travels, Wilson noted that many aspects of happiness are outside a person’s control such as economic status or where someone lives. But he shared three things he learned that might help us in our own lives.
1. Take to the water.
Wilson’s first stop was Iceland, which ranks as the third happiest country in the World Happiness Report. He found that Icelanders build their communities in the water.
“Icelanders are a very social people,” he said. “They love to sit together in bubbly, hot springs.”
He also met Icelanders who take cold-water ocean plunges together for mental health, and gave it a shot. (Early research suggests this practice might benefit mental health, but more studies are needed.) Wilson has since made it a regular habit.
“As much as every fiber of my body is screaming out, ‘No, stop,’ I’m so glad every time I do,” he said. “I liken it to rebooting your computer.”
2. Connect with others — whenever, wherever you can.
If you were following our Happiness Challenge back in January, you already know that study after study has found that people who have robust relationships with friends, family and community are happier and healthier.
Wilson said he saw this play out in Ghana, where 10 people will sometimes eat from the same bowl during a lively communal meal. This sense of easy unity was in direct contrast to his own childhood meals, which Wilson describes in one episode as “sitting in silence over frozen TV dinners” with his father and stepmother.
“Every time I came into contact with a person who had an expansive sense of well-being,” he said, “I swiftly realized that they had a deep and real connection to some kind of extended community.”
Wilson, who admitted on the show that his usual inclination was “to be left the hell alone,” has taken that appreciation of community back to his home in Los Angeles. “My daily work around my anxiety has to do with making sure that I don’t isolate, and that I connect with other people,” he said.
3. Allow happiness and sorrow to coexist.
Wilson also wanted to know what he could learn from a place that ranked lower in the World Happiness Report, so he traveled to Bulgaria, which is No. 77. There, he said he found “pockets of joy among the cracked Brutalist buildings.”
In the show, he speaks with Georgi Gospodinov, a Bulgarian novelist whose stories “center on his motherland’s unique blend of misery.” Gospodinov tells Wilson that it’s part of the human condition to feel sorrow — and that it can be freeing to recognize that there is no joy without an acknowledgment of pain.
This attitude, Wilson said, contrasts with what he called the pressure of enforced optimism, “which can be deleterious to one’s mental health.”
“I can feel sorrow and darkness and still feel joyful,” Wilson said. “Joy doesn’t negate the difficulties of being alive.”
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