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.