You might know him as Dwight Schrute, the resident geek from the cult-classic TV show The Office, but in Emmy-nominated actor Rainn Wilson’s new travel series, he’s simply himself (like Dwight, still a bit goofy and funny as ever) as he searches for the secrets to finding happiness across the globe.
“I don’t want to be this cold. I want to drink hot chocolate. And I’m scared.” His trademark offbeat, self-deprecating humor is on full display from the first episode of the bingeable docu-travel series Rainn Wilson’s Geography of Bliss, which premieres on Peacock on May 18th. The 57-year-old comedian begins his global quest for happiness by joining two dozen local women for one of their weekly swims in the freezing North Atlantic just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
His first stop is Iceland, which ranked third on the World Happiness Index for 2023. For a decade, Iceland has landed among the top 5 countries in the U.N.-backed World Happiness Report, which ranks global happiness in more than 150 countries around the world (the U.S. hasn’t ever cracked the top 10). This year, the number one spot was claimed for the sixth year in a row by another cold-plunge-loving Nordic country, Finland.
“The point of the show isn’t ‘Oh, here’s a good place for you all to move to be happy.’ The point is, what are the secrets of happiness that we can find from other cultures?” Wilson tells AFAR over a recent Zoom call. Despite his fame and success, happiness is something that the actor has personally struggled to find over the years; he openly shares in the show his own struggles with anxiety and depression.
“It’s something the world needs. It’s something America needs right now,” says Wilson.“We need to be engaged in this conversation about what brings us joy, what brings us union, what brings us meaning. And we can get very arrogant and think we have all the answers. But there’s a lot of answers out there that lie in other cultures.”
While he’s known for his comedic roles, Wilson’s spiritual quest isn’t new; from his latest book about spirituality, Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution, to his role as cofounder and podcaster for SoulPancake (which was “created to encourage open-hearted dialogue about what it means to be human”), he’s always been fascinated by life’s bigger questions.
The docu-travel show is adapted from the New York Times best-selling book The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. The grump, or author, of the humorous travel memoir is Eric Weiner (also an AFAR writer), who is co-executive producer of the series.
How other cultures find and define happiness
“There’s no cookie-cutter-like recipe for making a happy country or living in one,” Weiner tells AFAR. There are some commonalities though, he says, such as trust in government and connection to nature. He references the biophilia hypothesis, which states human beings are happiest when we feel the most connected to other living beings.
That might explain why living in a land of extreme nature, and marveling at it while sitting naked in a geothermal pool (as Wilson does in the show post cold-plunge in the sea), brings bliss in a place as remote as Iceland.
But each country does happiness its own way, explains Weiner. Iceland’s resilience, the ability its people have to survive in darkness for months on end, comes from a tradition of cooperating with neighbors and finding creative outlets—Iceland held the distinction as having the most writers per capita until recently. (Travelers who want to experience Iceland’s secrets to happiness first-hand can join Weiner for a seven-day bliss tour of Iceland in October 2023).
Across the world in Thailand, the unique birthday tradition of “making merit” or giving back is a key source of joy and wellbeing, notes Wilson, who visits the Southeast Asian country in the series. “American culture is completely backwards on this. We think that the key to happiness is getting more stuff, having more social status, and having more people pay attention to us, when in fact, the opposite is true,” says Wilson, who delves deeper into this notion during the final episode when he returns home to Los Angeles.
The show uses the book as a road map, but adds some of its own unique twists and turns. While Weiner visits Moldova in the book, Wilson visits Bulgaria in the series, both countries that score low on the World Happiness Index. But there’s a lot to learn from unhappy places too, believes Weiner. “I think Rainn fell in love with Bulgaria as I did with Moldova. So even ‘unhappy places’ can be very endearing and quite joyful in their own way.”
Similarly, Ghana is a country that scores overall lower on the index of happiness, yet its capital Accra ranks in the top five for most optimistic cities, due to its unity, well-functioning government, and higher education, cites Wilson. In the West African country, the host meets the women who are driving change there. They include Miss Taxi, the creator of an all-female transportation company in the capital Accra, and Ghana’s 11-year-old female boxing queen (who Wilson gets in the ring with).
“It’s really important to note that you can’t begin to have a conversation about happiness until you talk about income inequality,” Wilson says, as he points out how many people live in poverty in Ghana. “You have to be working at a certain functional level of basic income before you can have a conversation about happiness.” He adds, “It was really nice to see [people in Ghana] having the belief that their future is going to be brighter, and the future for their kids and grandkids is going to be ever brighter.”
Lessons all travelers can learn from Wilson’s journeys
What makes the travel show Geography of Bliss so refreshing is its focus on Wilson’s conversations with locals on what it means to be happy. In the spirit of Anthony Bourdain, who was known to break down barriers by sharing a meal with a stranger, Wilson’s docu-travel series also unpacks some tough topics such as mental health, social injustice, and poverty. But it also balances the sometimes serious mood with levity and humor, sincere emotion, and yes, moments of wacky joy (mostly seen in the host’s dance moves).
“If I’m there in a humble posture of learning about happiness from these different cultures, then I have to embed with the people that live there and learn from them directly about what’s working and what’s not,” says Wilson.
It’s a lesson that all travelers can learn from, says the host. The more time you spend having conversations with locals, living and dining with and among them, the more meaningful your travels will be.
Adds Wilson, “Those experiences are going to stay with you your whole life, rather than playing pickleball at a resort, or touring a ruin for a couple of hours and then having a delicious dinner.”
And perhaps you’ll bring something home with you that will bring you more happiness than a plastic souvenir.
Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss premieres on May 18, 2023, on Peacock.
Kathleen Rellihan Kathleen Rellihan is a travel journalist and editor covering adventure, culture, climate, and sustainability. Formerly Newsweek‘s travel editor, she contributes to outlets such as AFAR, Outside, TIME, CNN Travel, and more.