Endorphins Versus Economics
Rizki Nauli Siregar
The theory of diminishing marginal utility is one of the basic concepts in economics. This theory states that each additional unit of a commodity that we consume provides diminishing additional satisfaction. For example, when we’re hungry, the first spoon of food we eat gives us great enjoyment. But as we keep on eating, every next spoonful gives less pleasure than the previous one.
As I study economics, I find that this theory is very much relevant in our daily lives. I often feel that my additional satisfaction decreases the more units of goods or services I consume or the longer I do a particular activity that gives me pleasure. Here, I include activity as a form of consumption in general because some activities do give us pleasure and satisfaction. Thus, doing an enjoyable activity can be perceived as consuming as well. Some examples of such activity include watching movies or playing games.
However, my (full) acquiescence on this concept was challenged when I attended a meditation retreat last week. I had heard before that some activities such as meditation, running, exercise and eating chocolate could stimulate the release of endorphins by the brain. As a person who is not an expert in medical field or in neuroscience, what I understand is that endorphins are brain chemicals that can make us feel relaxed, happy or any other feeling of well-being. We all know that many people intentionally eat chocolate when they are stressed in order to feel calmer or happier. If you are a runner, you would surely understand the feeling of pleasure that you get when running. Likewise, you would understand the same concept if you like to meditate.
So what is the relation between endorphin release and the theory of diminishing marginal utility?
I found that activities that stimulate the release of endorphins are quite contrary to the concept of diminishing marginal utility. This is because even when these activities are carried or consumed, the additional satisfaction that comes with increasing duration of activity also increases instead of decreases.
In the beginning of the activity, we don’t really feel pleasure. But as we keep on exercising or meditating, the feeling of happiness and pleasure actually grows bigger. Perhaps the physical explanation is that the brain does not release endorphins directly as we start running or meditating. Instead as we keep on doing the activities, the stimulus to release endorphins grows stronger. Hence, the brain needs some time until it releases them.
Given this finding, I have to step away from my belief in the theory of diminishing marginal utility in everyday life. I agree that there are always exceptions, even to the most basic theories.