Marginal Utility: A week of sundays

a girl needs a hat for Christmas by Caroline

Perhaps you’ve heard of the girl who wanted Christmas every day. When she got her wish, she found that the first day of Christmas was wonderful, the second was okay, but after a month of Christmases… well, you can read it here if you haven’t figured it out already.

This is a good example of marginal utility. In the girl’s case, marginal utility is the amount of utility (pleasure) that she gets from each unit (day) of Christmas. Further, the law of diminishing marginal utility suggests that if she consumes Christmas continually, each day will be marginally less pleasurable than the last one.

We see this law at work in all different areas of consumption: the first Chipotle burrito is great. The fourth in the same day? Not so much. The first present handed to you on your birthday makes you feel really special. The twentieth (if you’re lucky… okay, pretend you’re five at the class birthday party), while appreciated, will probably feel just a bit repetitive.

A week of sundays?

Turns out, weekends and weekdays work the same way.

In Sunday, Craig Harline reviews the rest day in European history (although come to think of it, the last paragraph of the book was less pleasureable, and less informative, than the first… more diminishing marginal utility at work). I was most fascinated by the chapter on Paris in the 1890’s. In it, Harline tells stories from then-popular literary works, while offering modern commentary on the weekly rest habits of the French:

Such a dismissive attitude towards the popular Sunday [by the leisure class] suggests that those who knew only flexible leisure time simply could not grasp the urgency felt by those who had but one indisputably free day from which to squeeze every drop of pleasure.

Harline here describes the mental divide between the leisure classes, who chose when to work and when to rest, and the industrial classes, who often worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week before family obligations. For a man who spends 95% of his life working, the value of a day off is huge. For a man who already enjoys a mixture of work and rest (as many Americans do now), the pleasure of a day off is limited: he is experiencing that diminishing marginal utility curve.

Is this why relaxing on the weekend (or Sunday, or Sabbath), is not a value for most Americans today? Many of the people I know relax on weeknights and then use the weekend for productive activities – in effect giving themselves a seven-day work week of six to ten hours a day of work. Perhaps for people who rest every day, the marginal utility of one more day of rest is low enough that they prefer to work.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*