In Box

The Slow Track to Happiness

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

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.

Illustration by Chris Gash

In Box

Constitutional Confidence

What "We the People" tells us about trust in our fellow Americans.

The Indian Constitution-- the longest social contract of any country in the world -- clocks in at a hefty 78,255 words. It's split into 22 parts and contains 395 articles, with 98 amendments tacked on for good measure.

Why so wordy? The constitution's drafters might have said it's because they sought to be thorough, borrowing concepts from France, Japan, and the Soviet Union. But the authors of a recent study, "Constitutional Verbosity and Social Trust," would counter that the Indian Constitution is so long because Indians simply don't trust one another.

Economists Christian Bjornskov and Stefan Voigt examined the constitutions of 110 countries and found that the length of the document is inversely correlated to how much faith that nation's people have in their fellow citizens, as measured by the World Values Survey. Countries with long constitutions and low trust levels include Kenya (74,789 words) and Brazil (42,472 words). Countries with short constitutions and high trust levels include Norway (7,404 words) and Denmark (6,208 words). The U.S. Constitution is pithy -- just 4,542 words -- and American trust levels are indeed above average. But the title for the world's shortest constitution belongs to Iceland, which clocks in at a snappy 4,115 words.

A more detailed constitution can be a good thing. Explicit legal codes covering a variety of scenarios establish clear boundaries for lawmaking and governing. They constrain both contemporary actors as well as future politicians, who may not share the same ideas as a country's founders. But the extra codification comes at a cost: Too many constraints can make governing cumbersome. Thus, when constitution drafters feel confident that their compatriots will act in good faith, they'll tend to opt for brevity, Bjornskov and Voigt argue. It's only when they're skeptical that they'll fill in the gaps with codes and caveats. It's the difference between, say, a 130-page contract and a handshake.

All things being equal, this suggests that a shorter constitution indicates a healthier political situation. But Bjornskov and Voigt caution that their theory of constitution drafting assumes a certain degree of objectivity and foresight on the part of the drafters and, as they put it, that "no other overriding considerations are salient around constitutional birth." If the victors in a civil war draft a concise new constitution, for example, that does not necessarily indicate a high degree of national warmth and fuzziness.

So what does that say about Egypt's new, just-below-average-length, 20,000-word constitution, which was written in the aftermath of a military coup, bans religious parties from the political process, and reinforces the army's control? The result of a strong sense of trust? Perhaps. Or perhaps there were other salient overriding considerations.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images