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Wellbeing public policy needs more theory

Wellbeing policymakers need a better theoretical understanding of both wellbeing and the policy applications of it.

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There is presently a groundswell of enthusiasm and advocacy for “wellbeing public policy” (WPP), especially as part of the movement to go “beyond GDP”. While recognising the merits of this proposal, this paper advocates for a cautious approach owing to our poor theoretical understanding of both wellbeing and the policy applications of it. There are certainly well-established empirical regularities in wellbeing data, many of which have policy implications. However, we presently lack a causal understanding of these empirical regularities, and wellbeing change more broadly. They could be explained by a number of mutually exclusive theoretical accounts. We also lack a sophisticated understanding of how these causal mechanisms interact with prevailing socioeconomic, institutional, and cultural structures. In the context of public policy, these issues raise the risk of policymakers naively pulling the wrong causal lever, with unintended consequences. This paper explains how these issues can undermine the robustness, generalisability, and persistence of wellbeing public policies, and outlines a research agenda to address the most pressing gaps in our knowledge. 

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The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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  • About the author

    Professor Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy

    Professor Coyle co-directs the Institute with Professor Kenny. She is heading research under the progress and productivity themes.   Learn more

    Diane Coyle 2018
  • About the author

    Dr Matthew Agarwala, Project Leader: The Wealth Economy

    Matthew Agarwala, Economist, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge.   Learn more

    Matthew Agarwala
  • About the author

    Dr Mark Fabian, Research Associate

    Mark is a welfare economist working on the Measuring Well-Being project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. His research focuses on the epistemology and ethics of well-being metrics, especially how policymakers and citizens understand well-being, its measurement, and the legitimacy of well-being policy interventions.    Learn more

  • About the author

    Marco Felici, Research Assistant

    Marco Felici a Research Assistant for the Six Capitals Programme at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, working in The Wealth Economy project.    Learn more

    Marco Felici
  • About the author

    Dr Anna Alexandrova

    Anna is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King's College, having previously taught at the University of Missouri St Louis. She writes on philosophy of social sciences, especially economic modelling, explanation, and the sciences of well-being. She was a recipient of the Philosophy of Science Association Recent PhD Essay Prize.