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The ups and downs of happiness in Indigenous young people


In Australia, news about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples wellbeing tends to follow a negative narrative. But new research is investigating from a different perspective – looking at the happiness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and how it really fairs in comparison to the rest of the population.

“It’s always about what’s going badly for Indigenous youth in particular with regards to issues like education, health or mental health,” said Associate Professor Philip Parker from ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE).

With this in mind, he recently collaborated with Associate Professor Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews from the Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledge at UTS on research that explores the happiness of Indigenous youth. They tried to determine the external factors that may be contributing to the ups and downs in happiness as reported by thousands of young people in a national study.

Their research drew on data collected from approximately 52,000 Australian young people between 15 to 28 years of age (with three per cent of respondents identifying as Indigenous) from 1997 to 2013. 

“We wanted to look at the circumstances in which Indigenous young people are happier or unhappier in comparison to those who are non-Indigenous,” explained Associate Professor Parker.

“We were examining how they reported getting along with people, what their future looks like and how they perceive the Australian government is being run. We also wanted to know whether differences in happiness changed as they aged.”

The happiness gap

Their “big ticket item”, as Associate Professor Parker described it, was discovering that the differences in reported levels of happiness between Indigenous and non-Indigenous study participants were relatively small. 

“The differences were either small and persistent, or small and disappeared by the time adulthood came around. But the one that stood out the most was how happy young people were with the government.”

While this might sound like good news, Associate Professor Parker acknowledges that studying wellbeing isn’t always straight-forward.

“Happiness is a strange thing,” he admits. “We need to be sensitive to the results. What we saw is the difference in happiness between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people basically disappears when they are in their 20s. If you were just measuring the wellbeing of Indigenous adults, you might say there’s no real difference between the two groups, so there’s nothing to be concerned about. But if you look back to when they are 15 or 16, the difference in happiness is relatively large.” 

Associate Professor Bodkin-Andrews is quick to agree that these differences aren’t to be dismissed. “There might not be a substantial difference, but there is a persistent difference. That in itself tells a story,” he said.  

Rises and falls 

The two researchers, along with Dr Rhiannon Parker from the University of New South Wales and Associate Professor Nick Biddle from Australian National University, took particular notice of a significant rise and fall in reported happiness in the data. A large dip occurred in 2005 and a noticeable rise was apparent in 2009. 

“In 2005, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) (which was the main government representative body for Indigenous people at the time) was closed down,” explained Associate Professor Parker. 

“Then in 2009, the rise in happiness came from the National Apology the year before, which was when then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally acknowledged the suffering caused by years of mistreatment of Indigenous Australians.

“What we hypothesise is young people’s wellbeing is responsive to lots of things, but when you’re an Indigenous person or from a minority, a sense of sovereignty or autonomy of your group is really important. And when that feels threatened, your happiness is also threatened. So, when an Indigenous representative body like ATSIC closed, it was perceived as an attack on Indigenous sovereignty.” 

Hidden strengths

Associate Professor Parker suggests that perhaps this decrease in happiness in Indigenous young people over a political event like ATSIC closing is indicative of strength in Indigenous communities. 

“While we do tend to talk a lot about Indigenous peoples wellbeing problems, we don’t talk enough about their strengths. In this instance, it could be that they have a closer sense of community engagement,” he said. “It may well be that Indigenous young people are better informed about local community matters compared to non-Indigenous youth.”

Happiness by design

Taking a tailored approach to improving Indigenous young people’s wellbeing is critical said both researchers. 

“Indigenous people are from a very diverse group of nations, clans and tribes. We have different cultural values and different Dreaming stories,” explained Associate Professor Bodkin-Andrews, who is himself Indigenous. 

“The big problem is we tend to homogenise the Western labels of Indigenous and non-Indigenous. So, what we’re arguing is that if you want to increase happiness in Indigenous youth, you need to make it culturally relevant. A broad westernised approach to our wellbeing is not going to serve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.”

ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education conducts world-class research addressing critical educational and psychosocial issues. 

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright @ Australian Catholic University 1998-2018 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G