In his entertaining new book, Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist, economist Tyler Cowen considers the following scenario: You are about to walk into an art museum. You aspire to appreciate the many works of art you will see, in part because valuing high art is part of your self-image: You consider yourself a person who would enjoy spending an afternoon at an art museum.

But here’s the problem: In spite of your plans and aspirations, you get tired after an hour or so of walking around, and all the paintings, no matter how wonderful, begin to blur together.

To resolve the tension between the fact that you want to enjoy the art museum and yet it eventually bores you, Cowen, a professor at George Mason University and co-founder of the popular blog, poses an economic question: “What is the relevant scarcity hindering a better outcome?”

The answer: Your attention span is the scarcity. And the solution? Make it fun for yourself. In his words, give yourself incentives to reach your goal of enjoying the museum.

Cowen offers several ways to trick yourself into paying more attention. Instead of advising that you read up on the exhibit in advance or study the informational placards beside the paintings, Cowen writes:

In every room ask yourself which picture you would take home — if you could take just one — and why. This forces us to keep thinking critically about the displays. If the alarm system was shut down and the guards went away, should I carry home the Cezanne, the Manet or the Renoir?

Another tip:

Pretend we are shopping for pictures on a budget. We are probably better at shopping than looking at pictures. … How might $20 million be spent at the Met? … This exercise will again focus our attention, force us to clarify our intentions, and improve the quality of our viewing.

The first step toward enjoying art more, Cowen writes, is admitting “that we don’t care as much about culture as we like to think we do.”

So how can Cowen’s approach be applied to questions of faith? ReligionWriter contends that for many people, religious observances present problems similar to those of Cowen’s art museum. We want to enjoy the experience, and it’s part our self-image to believe we find going to the church or synagogue or mosque meaningful and fulfilling. Yet who has not yawned their way through a sermon or prayer at one time or another? How do you keep your mind from wandering from the divine service to thoughts about grocery shopping later in the day or your next work assignment?

Applying Cowen’s logic, the first and probably most difficult step is admitting that we don’t always enjoy religious services and observances as much as we would like to think we do. There should be no shame in this admission. Cowen himself, a voracious consumer of culture and appreciator of art, reports that after a few hours in an art museum he gets “museum legs” and begins to whine.

So church/mosque/synagogue/temple/fill-in-the-religious-blank is sometimes boring — accept that as a given. How can we apply Cowen’s concept of incentives to make the experience more enjoyable?

The Prophet Muhammad used to advise his followers to pray each prayer as if it were their last. This advice, repeated constantly, can become a bit glib. But if we actually take a moment to imagine, before a prayer or religious service, that we might die in a car accident or tsunami later in the day, we might find it easier to concentrate on facing the divine in the moment, rather thinking idly about our everyday worries.

What if you listened to a sermon with the idea that you would have to stand up and summarize the best points when it was over? What if, in fact, you did call up someone when church was over and tell them what you liked and didn’t like about the sermon? If you want to genuinely enjoy the experience, you have to make it fun for yourself. (ReligionWriter and her brother used to accomplish this goal by seeing how long they could hold the Communion wine and wafer in their mouths before swallowing them, though this practice is only recommended for church-goers 12 and under.)

ReligionWriter learned about Cowen’s economics work because his George Mason University colleague, Larry Iannacconne is helping to pioneer the study of the economics of religion. The final lesson? Next time you look for a book on religious inspiration, don’t walk too quickly past the economics section.

Related Content on ReligionWriter:

Economics of Religion: Suicide Bombing a Response to “Market Demand,” Says Scholar

Also read Tyler Cowen’s posting:

The Theology of Popular Economics

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