The Slow Track to Happiness

Religion makes you poorer. It also makes you happier. If you think that's a contradiction, you're wrong.

Illustration by Chris Gash
Illustration by Chris Gash
Illustration by Chris Gash

Anyone who has been in a Muslim country during Ramadan knows the transformation that comes about with the first sighting of the crescent moon.

During the holy month, the devout fast from sunrise to sunset. Bustling thoroughfares go quiet; office hours are shorter to accommodate fasting employees; and business grinds to a halt, to the frustration of expats and foreign partners.

Now, a new paper from two Harvard University researchers confirms what until now has only been a nagging suspicion: Religion isn't good for the economy.

Anyone who has been in a Muslim country during Ramadan knows the transformation that comes about with the first sighting of the crescent moon.

During the holy month, the devout fast from sunrise to sunset. Bustling thoroughfares go quiet; office hours are shorter to accommodate fasting employees; and business grinds to a halt, to the frustration of expats and foreign partners.

Now, a new paper from two Harvard University researchers confirms what until now has only been a nagging suspicion: Religion isn’t good for the economy.

Economists Filipe Campante and David Yanagizawa-Drott examined data from every Ramadan since 1950, using the amount of time spent fasting as a measure for intensity of religious practice.

Focusing on countries that were more than 75 percent Muslim, they found that when people spent more time fasting — when Ramadan fell during the long days of summer, for instance — it took a bigger toll on economic growth. Increasing the average daily fast in a country from 12 to 13 hours, for example, decreased GDP growth by about 0.7 percentage points, the authors found. More-intense religious practice, in other words, left worshippers poorer. And being poorer makes you less happy, right?

Wrong. Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott also found that Muslims who went through a more intense Ramadan season reported feeling happier. Increasing the average fast from 12 to 13 hours boosted by 4 percent the chance that respondents would describe themselves as being happy that year.

Most interestingly, however, the economic losses don’t come as a result of productivity squandered during a month of lethargy and hunger. Rather, the slowdown in growth comes from Muslims making different choices post-Ramadan about how they live their lives — namely, what jobs to take and how to divide their time between work and worship. Spending more time praying, it seems, leads Muslims to make decisions that result in slower economic growth — but greater happiness.

Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott’s research is yet another indicator that increasing GDP growth may not be the best way to improve a population’s overall well-being. But it also raises interesting questions: If people are happier working less and worshipping more, then why don’t they opt for that choice without the extra Ramadan nudge? And is this trend specific to Ramadan and Islam, or does it hold for people who spend more time in church or synagogue?

These are paths for future research, the authors say. In the meantime, for Muslims north of the equator, Ramadan falls smack dab in the middle of summer this year. For those celebrating, the days will be long and difficult, but, if Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott are right, they will have a happier year.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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