Wellbeing as a wicked problem: navigating the arguments for the role of government

Bache, Ian; Reardon, Louise and Anand, Paul (2016). Wellbeing as a wicked problem: navigating the arguments for the role of government. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(3) pp. 893–912.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-015-9623-y


Governments in a number of countries have shown increasing interest in seeking to elevate happiness or wellbeing as an explicit policy goal. This interest has led to fierce debates both within and, increasingly, beyond academe about the appropriate role for government in this area. It is difficult to adjudicate between the various arguments surrounding the issue as they often take very different starting points, either metatheoretical or disciplinary. In seeking to steer a course through these arguments we take the distinction between ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’ problems as a reference point, arguing that wellbeing should be categorised as the former. The seminal discussion of this distinction (Rittel and Webber in Policy Sci 4:155–169, 1973) resonates sharply with current debates on wellbeing and indeed is located within similar debates in the past. We argue that understanding wellbeing as a wicked problem steers us towards deliberation and scrutiny as central to the agenda and cautions us against expecting to find a panacea. However, this understanding can take us beyond irresolvable disputes by pointing to the need for pragmatic and legitimate government action. In developing our arguments we ground them mainly in relation to empirical research on developments in the UK, where the connection between wellbeing and public policy is seen as relatively advanced. However, we suggest these arguments apply to other contexts where wellbeing is increasing traction as a potential goal of government policy.

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