Published on 28 June 2021
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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.

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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Authors

Diane Coyle 2018

Professor Diane Coyle

Bennett Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

Professor Coyle co-directs the Institute with Professor Kenny. She is heading research under the progress and productivity themes. Biography Professor Dame Diane Coyle is the Bennett Professor of Public Policy...

Dr Mark Fabian

Affiliated Researcher

Mark Fabian is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Warwick and an Affiliated Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. He continues to work with colleagues...

Matthew Agarwala

Dr Matthew Agarwala

Project Leader: The Wealth Economy

Dr Matthew Agarwala is an economist interested in wealth-based approaches to measuring and delivering sustainability, wellbeing, and productivity. His research is motivated by the belief that 21st century progress cannot...

Professor Anna Alexandrova

Professor Anna Alexandrova is a Professor in Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, with a special focus on social sciences. Prior to her current role, she was an...

Marco Felici

Dr Marco Felici

Affiliated Researcher

Dr Marco Felici works at the intersection of policy and research, with interests spanning household finance, housing, subjective wellbeing, and mental health. With colleagues at the Bennett Institute, he explores...

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