Actor Rainn Wilson Opens Up About Mental Health, Spirituality and His Climate Change Crusade
Known best from The Office, the actor, producer, author and activist explores the powerful connection between the health of planet Earth and humans' mental health.
Rainn Wilson is widely known as one of the best comedic actors of our time for his iconic role as Dwight on The Office, but lately, the actor, writer and producer has been focused on two other roles that might prove to be just as influential. He’s become a spiritual guru to many (though he hates the label) with his New York Times best selling book Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution (Hachette Go, 2023). Wilson has also become a climate warrior (he probably won’t protest that word) as the co-founder of Climate Basecamp, an organization that tries to make the science of climate change more accessible and friendly to the public.
Wilson co-founded Climate Basecamp alongside Gail Whiteman, a professor of sustainability. Since teaming up, the duo has executed a variety of stunts to get the word out about climate change. (We’d make a joke about having a name like Rainn and caring about climate change, but he’s already done that—he once changed his name to Rainnfall Heat Wave Extreme Winter Wilson for almost a year in the name of climate change.)
Last week the pair camped out in New York City’s Union Square Park passing out chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavored Blue Marble ice cream to raise awareness for endangered foods. Those three flavors, along with mango, coffee, pistachio and many other foods, could be a thing of the past if climate action is not taken. “Temperature rises, or in some cases, cooling for strange periods of time, screws up how these plants are actually grown,” explained co-founder Professor Gail Whiteman. “On top of that, changes to rainfall are affecting the plant’s ability to grow properly [meanwhile affecting] things like bugs, pests, and fungus.”
The Healthy @Reader’s Digest talked with Rainn Wilson about climate change, food and how finding spirituality transformed his mental health.
Rainn Wilson on climate change
The Healthy @Readers Digest: It can seem almost insurmountable for us as individuals to try to take on climate change when it’s so tempting to blame the giant corporations that are causing these problems on a large scale. What do you think we can do as a community and as an individual in society?
Rainn Wilson: I think that eating consciously, eating communally, sourcing locally and turning towards a more plant-based diet, those are really important things, actually. They go a long way reducing carbon footprint, but also kind of letting your consumer dollars speak against kind of industrial mono farming, especially of soy and dairy and beef. So that’s one way that people can get involved.
The other way I think that’s really important is for folks to just get educated in very simple ways—because you’re right and I say “Amen.” It’s 97% governments and oil companies and manufacturing and concrete and air conditioning and mono farming, and these big corporations that are causing it. So sometimes we want to ignore the news that comes in around climate, because it is so daunting and overwhelming and depressing. But we can all shop less. We can all use solar. We can drive electric. That’s all great. But what we can do as a country with some very simple acts of legislation could go a very long way.
The Healthy: Tell us about how this became an issue that was important to you, and how you co-founded Climate Basecamp.
Rainn Wilson: The issue has always been important to me. I think the important transition was I had a long, hard, cold look in the mirror about five or six years ago and realized, “Hey, Rainn, you really care about climate. But all you’re doing, all you’re doing is sending out an occasional angry tweet.”
The Healthy: So many of us can relate.
Rainn Wilson: “You are the definition of a keyboard warrior, and you’re not actually getting off your butt and doing anything, taking action.” It’s way easier. “Let deeds, not words, be your adorning,” says the spiritual teacher Baha’u’llah. Like we lead with our deeds. Right?
So that’s when I met Gail fortuitously, and she was doing a lot of work with an organization called the Arctic Basecamp, and we traveled to Greenland. We did a short documentary series called An Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change, and we started doing a lot of really fun, memorable activations that got a good amount of attention from people. We really are aligned in trying to reach that movable middle with memorable, irreverent, fun, and entertaining climate activations that speak science to culture.
Rainn Wilson on spirituality
The Healthy: It’s a great match. You also recently wrote a book that was a New York Times bestseller, Soul Boom, which explores the possibility and hope for a spiritual revolution on a personal and global level. Tell us what inspired this book, which has kind of turned you into this sort of guru for many who are looking for a spiritual connection.
Rainn Wilson: Oh, dear God, please don’t let me be a guru.
The Healthy: Not a cult guru, a good guru.
Rainn Wilson: I’m really not a guru. So, spiritual solutions for personal and social transformation is an idea that I have been thinking about for twenty or thirty years. And so I wrote the book over COVID because I really believe that we do need a spiritual revolution. This is not just a revolution that’s going to happen through legislation and policy changes, but a change in the heart of the mass of humanity. And that there are spiritual ideas and solutions out there that can help. Not just us personally with mental health issues, but can help society moving forward. So this is very connected to climate.
I view climate as a kind of spiritual pandemic, not just a political issue. It has to do with humanity’s relationship to Mother Earth and to nature and respect and love and awe and wonder at the beauty and fragility of nature. That should be inherent in our DNA as it was to our ancestors and as it is to many and most indigenous peoples. So there is a spiritual component at the heart of the climate debate.
Rainn Wilson on mental wellness
The Healthy: Climate change, in general, does spark a lot of issues that we talk about on our site, like depression, anxiety, this existential dread. You’ve been open about your struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction—these are all topics that we talk a lot about on our site. Can you tell me a little bit about what you went through, and what you found helpful that might resonate with our readers?
Rainn Wilson: It’s very helpful for young people when people in the public eye come clean about their own struggles in mental health. So I’ve had a lot of struggles with anxiety and depression and loneliness in my youth, and it’s something I still work on and have to. And for me, I found that there were a number of solutions to this to be found in great, holy, wise, spiritual texts of ancient faith traditions. And I love positive psychology. It’s all well and good, and you can go on your Instagram and there’s all kinds of tips and pointers. But when we have a profound realization that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, there are a number of tools that can satisfy us at a far deeper level for a personal transformation. And again, this ties to climate science because as we heal ourselves, we want to heal the world.
The Healthy: Which of the texts did you find helpful? I’ve been taking a yoga philosophy class that’s been profound in my own life. Are there any that you would recommend people should look to?
Rainn Wilson: Yeah, I mean, you’re talking about yoga philosophy. So the Vedantas and the Varaha Upanishads and the kind of earliest Hindu texts, some of the oldest spiritual texts in the world, really address a lot of stuff that have to do with mental health. The Bhagavad Gita is revered by billions on this planet, and there’s a great deal of beautiful wisdom in it.
One of the sayings from the Gita is, “You are entitled to the work, but not to the fruits of the work.” And I love that: That we do the work because we love it, but we don’t know how it’s going to be received. And that’s in everyone’s work, whether you’re an accountant or a baseball player or an actor or a pharmacist.