Do Aboriginal Australians suffer from ‘existential aimlessness’?

According to The Age‘s report, one passage in particular of Brendan Nelson’s ‘sorry’ speech seemed to upset the crowds watching the broadcast:

Alcohol, welfare without responsibilities, isolation from the economic mainstream, corrupt management of resources, nepotism, political buck-passing between governments with divided responsibilities, lack of home ownership, under-policing and tolerance by authorities of neglect and abuse of children that violates all we stand for, all combine to still see too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living lives of existential aimlessness. [emphasis added]

I associate ‘existential aimlessness’ with European intellectuals rather than Aboriginal Australians, but I think I understand what Nelson is getting at. This is that the dismal physical conditions and limited life prospects of many Aborigines must lead to a disproportionate number suffering from the psychological maladies that flow from meaninglessness and hopelessness. But the literature on well-being and ill-being suggests caution in inferring mental states from living conditions.

For example, the 2004-05 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey asked various well-being questions of its respondents. 7% said that they felt ‘without hope’ all or most of the time, and another 13% said that they felt that way some of the time. But 62% said that they felt that way none of the time.

Perhaps not suprisingly, identical results were found for the proposition ‘so sad that nothing could cheer you up’. By contrast, in the general National Health Survey 2004-05 about 13% of the broader population reported high or very high levels of psychological distress.

But because, somewhat counter-intuitively, ill-being and well-being are not simple opposites only 9% of Indigenous Australians reported being happy none of the time (2%) or little of the time (7%). (Incidentally, the questions in these survey are very good because they don’t force people to rank themselves as if they had a steady emotional state.) 71% rated themselves as happy all or most of the time. I can’t find an exact comparison survey for the general population, but in the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 8% ranked themselves as 4 or below on a 0 to 10 happiness scale, while 74% rated themselves at 7 or above, the range normally considered as signifying normal happiness.

Overall, the ill-being and well-being results for Aboriginal Australians do look worse than for the general population, but not by nearly as much as we might expect. It’s worth noting too that on every indicator ‘remote’ respondents gave themselves better ratings than ‘non-remote’, despite the seemingly dreadful state of remote settlements. Of course, the fact that people can find happiness in very unpromising conditions is no reason not to try to make their material lives better.

9 thoughts on “Do Aboriginal Australians suffer from ‘existential aimlessness’?

  1. Andrew;

    That is why I have talked about objective suffering, not subjective experience. Infant mortality, life expectancy, rates of violent or sexual crime — these are all objectively measurable indicators of ill-being.


  2. The English philosopher Anthony Kenny subdivides “happiness” into 3 constituent elements — welfare (covering basic bodily needs like food, housing), dignity (including choice and prestige) and contentment.

    People’s survey responses seem to focus on the last aspect, so there is no logical contradiction between a person being subjectively happy (contented) and objectively in a pitiful state of happiness (welfare or dignity).

    Except perhaps as a guide to voting intentions, I’m not sure we should place much credence on “happiness” surveys


  3. I think both comments make good points; at the very least conventional measures of happiness seem not to capture important elements of daily experience.


  4. ” ?remote? respondents gave themselves better ratings than ?non-remote? ”

    Non-remote aboriginals get to see how other people live, which is a lot better than them and they just might be subject to a bit of good old fashioned racism from the whiteys.

    Remote aboriginals live among themselves, so while they live in a human sewer, so does everyone else around them. And so they are content, after a fashion.


  5. Spiros has obviously never seen a remote settlement, so you can discard his comment. As for ‘existential aimlessness’ well the aborigenes entire belief system is gone and they are consantly told they are victims well there isn’t much left. I know a couple of aborigines who live and work like the rest of us and they generally have good lives. Until they have the freedom to buy and sell their land and realise they don’t have to live as their advisors want them to they will never get better. Their only hope is to become part of society not remain seperate from it. One thing I cannot understand is what makes an aborigine? How can someone with 25% or less be given aboriginal status? Is the aboriginal bloodline so strong it overides all other genetic heritage?


  6. Aboriginal existential aimlessness is more easily accountable than my existential aimlessness. They have been subject to a history of cultural and other forms of systematic violence. I am after all part of the dominant culture. Assuming that a frenzy of activity does not satisfy the requirement of existential “aimfulness”, we in the same position i.e. digging into our cultural background to reframe our existential beings in ways that may accord with our humanity. A common purpose may provide the opportunity for mutual cultural learning? We might mutually repudiate the assumptions of egotism, scarcity, competition, and violence for a more congruent and scientifically sound view of human life.


  7. The existential alienation of the European has been amplified
    by ever increasing post-Fordist specialisation – so European
    Australians (after James Cook) have continued to be further
    alienated from each other, the land, their joy (expressed
    through creativity – now the realm of specialists only) and
    their true, connected selves. Aboriginal people the world over
    continue to suffer from deliberate cultural genocide
    perpetrated by church and state, and systemic and
    individual racism and continue to struggle to piece together
    their culture from its deliberate fragmentation (eg from
    assimilist policies, Stolen Generation, the squattocracy etc).
    Let us hope that with Johnny’s long overdue demise we can
    set about healing the divide soul of the nation – Kev at least
    (and at last) set us back on the journey Keating began.
    I don’t think there is any existential aimlessness in
    Aboriginal culture- only the evidence of 200 years of
    mistreatment stemming from Euro arrogance and greed.


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