Religion and happiness are difficult concepts to wrestle into a data set, but in what Freakonomics Radio host Stephen Dubner praised as a “great teaching sequence,” MIT economist Jonathan Gruber ’87 recently walked listeners through his methodology for doing just that. The podcast attempted to answer the question of whether religion makes people happier—a topic Gruber has studied from multiple perspectives, with compelling if inconclusive results. His stance is that economics, not unlike faith, must persevere in the face of doubt: “You’ve got to decide is the question important enough that you want to answer it, even if there’s not as clean an answer as you’d like.”

Religion is not Gruber’s specialty. You’re far more likely to spot him in the news discussing health care reform. He was raised in the Jewish faith but is not, he told Dubner, a religious man. It was a childhood memory that inspired his scholarly interest: a joke his father made, when becoming treasurer for their temple, that this contribution should excuse him from having to attend services. Gruber later wondered whether this attitude might be triggered, perhaps in earnest, by financial contributions. In his first study on religion, “Pay or Pray?,” he found that the more money people donate to their places of worship, the less time they spend there.

That’s a shame, Gruber believes, because they’re missing out on tangible benefits. Another of his studies indicates that those who attend religious services regularly are, as a result, “more likely to have higher incomes, higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any economic measure you want to use.”

Listen to the podcast, embedded above, or read a transcript.

And learn more about Gruber’s central research concern, health care reform, as articulated in his 2011 graphic novel.

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