Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 2503–2525 | Cite as

A Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Wellbeing in Australia

  • Matthew Manning
  • Christopher L. Ambrey
  • Christopher M. FlemingEmail author
Research Paper


The Indigenous people of Australia are severely disadvantaged according to a range of objective indicators. Unfortunately, the use of subjective indicators has been largely absent from the Indigenous policy domain. This is problematic because many things that matter to Indigenous peoples cannot be measured objectively. This paper addresses this gap; specifically, we employ a range of econometric techniques and Australian household data to explore the subjective wellbeing of Indigenous Australians in relation to: (1) levels of life satisfaction; (2) inequality in life satisfaction; (3) the prevalence and severity of dissatisfaction; and (4) determinants of life satisfaction. Results indicate that Indigenous life satisfaction peaked in 2003 and has since declined, and inequality in life satisfaction is greater for Indigenous than non-Indigenous Australians. Further, while the determinants of life satisfaction for non-Indigenous Australians are consistent with existing evidence and a priori expectations, the results for Indigenous Australians differ in many respects.


Dissatisfaction Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey Indigenous Australians Inequality Life satisfaction Subjective wellbeing 



This paper uses unit record data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. The HILDA Project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and views reported in this paper, however, are those of the authors and should not be attributed to either DSS or the Melbourne Institute. Thanks also to Professor Adrian Miller, Bronwyn Wolski and Samantha de Lore of Griffith University’s Indigenous Research Unit who hosted the authors while this research was undertaken. Thanks also to anonymous reviewers for their constructive and insightful comments. All errors and omissions remain our own.


  1. Ambrey, C., & Fleming, C. (2014). Life satisfaction in Australia: Evidence from ten years of the HILDA survey. Social Indicators Research, 115(2), 691–714.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide deaths. Accessed 5 Nov 2014.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2014). Exploring the gap in labour market outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Accessed 4 Oct 2014.
  4. Australian Government (2013). Closing the gap: The indigenous reform agenda. Accessed 21 Aug 2014.
  5. Australian Government. (2014). Indigenous affairs. Canberra: Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.Google Scholar
  6. Baetschmann, G., Staub, K., & Winkelmann, R. (2015). Consistent estimation of the fixed effects ordered logit model. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society), 178(3), 685–703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2001). Do people mean what they say? Implications for subjective survey data. The American Economic Review, 91(2), 67–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Biddle, N. (2014a). Measuring and analysing the wellbeing of Australia’s indigenous population. Social Indicators Research, 116(3), 713–729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Biddle, N. (2014b). The relationship between community and individual measures of wellbeing: Comparisons by remoteness for Indigenous Australians. Australian Geographer, 45(1), 53–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Biddle, N., & Prout, S. (2014). Recent change in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population and housing geographies. Geographical Research, 52(2), 133–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Boes, S., & Winkelmann, R. (2010). The effect of income on general life satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Social Indicators Research, 95(1), 111–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bradley, S., Draca, M., Green, C., & Leeves, G. (2007). The magnitude of educational disadvantage of indigenous minority groups in Australia. Journal of Population Economics, 20(3), 547–569.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Brough, M., Bond, C., & Hunt, J. (2004). Strong in the city: Towards a strength-based approach in Indigenous health promotion. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 15(3), 215–220.Google Scholar
  14. Browne-Yung, K., Ziersch, A., Baum, F., & Gallaher, G. (2013). Aboriginal Australians’ experience of social capital and its relevance to health and wellbeing in urban settings. Social Science and Medicine, 97(1), 20–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Council of Australian Governments (2014). Closing the gap in indigenous disadvantage. Accessed 4 Oct 2014.
  16. Council of Australian Governments Reform Council. (2014). Indigenous reform 2012–2013: Five years of performance. Report to the Council of Australian Governments. Sydney: COAG Reform Council.Google Scholar
  17. Diener, E., Inglehart, R., & Tay, L. (2013). Theory and validity of life satisfaction scales. Social Indicators Research, 112(3), 497–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dietsch, E., Martin, T., Shackleton, P., Davies, C., McLeod, M., & Alston, M. (2011). Australian aboriginal kinship: A means to enhance maternal well-being. Women and Birth, 24(2), 58–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dockery, A. (2010). Culture and wellbeing: The case of Indigenous Australians. Social Indicators Research, 99(2), 315–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Dolan, P., & White, M. (2007). How can measures of subjective well-being be used to inform public policy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(1), 71–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ferrer-i-Carbonell, A., & Frijters, P. (2004). How important is methodology for the estimates of the determinants of happiness? The Economic Journal, 114(497), 641–659.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Frijters, P., Haisken-DeNew, J., & Shields, M. (2004). Money does matter! Evidence from increasing real income and life satisfaction in East Germany following reunification. American Economic Review, 94(3), 730–740.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hayes, C. (2008). HILDA standard errors: User guide. HILDA Project Technical Paper Series. Melbourne: Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. Google Scholar
  24. Headey, B., Muffels, R., & Wagner, G. (2013). Choices which change life satisfaction: Similar results for Australia. Britain and Germany. Social Indicators Research, 112(3), 725–748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hill, R. C., Griffiths, W., & Lim, G. (2008). Principles of econometrics (3rd ed.). New Jersey: Wiley.Google Scholar
  26. Kahneman, D., & Krueger, A. (2006). Developments in the measurement of subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1), 3–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kahneman, D., & Sugden, R. (2005). Experienced utility as a standard of policy evaluation. Environmental & Resource Economics, 32(1), 161–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kahneman, D., & Thaler, R. (2006). Utility maximization and experienced utility. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1), 221–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kalmijn, W., & Veenhoven, R. (2005). Measuring inequality of happiness in nations: In search for proper statistics. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6(4), 357–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kelly, K., Dudgeon, P., Gee, G., & Glaskin, B. (2009). Living on the edge: Social and emotional wellbeing and risk and protective factors for serious psychological distress among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association and Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health Discussion Paper No. 10. Casuarina, Northern Territory: Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health.Google Scholar
  31. Kimmel, J. (1997). Rural wages and returns to education: Differences between whites, blacks, and American Indians. Economics of Education Review, 16(1), 81–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kuhn, P., & Sweetman, A. (2002). Aboriginals as unwilling immigrants: Contact, assimilation and labour market outcomes. Journal of Population Economics, 15(2), 331–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Layard, R. (2006). Happiness and public policy: A challenge to the profession. Economic Journal, 116(510), c24–c33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lucas, R., & Donnellan, M. (2012). Estimating the reliability of single-item life satisfaction measures: Results from four national panel studies. Social Indicators Research, 105(3), 232–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Maani, S. (2004). Why have Maori relative income levels deteriorated over time? Economic Record, 80(248), 101–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Martin, G., Swannell, S., Harrison, J., Hazell, P., & Taylor, A. (2010). The Australian National Epidemiological Study of Self-Injury (ANESSI). Brisbane, Australia: Centre for Suicide Prevention Studies.Google Scholar
  37. Metcalfe, R., Powdthavee, N., & Dolan, P. (2011). Destruction and distress: Using a quasi-experiment to show the effects of the September 11 attacks on mental well-being in the United Kingdom. The Economic Journal, 121(550), F81–F103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Osborne, K., Baum, F., & Brown, L. (2013). What works? A review of actions addressing the social and economic determinants of indigenous health. Closing the Gap Clearinghouse: Australian Government.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Parliament of Australia (2014). Constitutional Reform - Indigenous peoples and local government. Accessed 16 Oct 2014.
  40. Paul, S., & Guilbert, D. (2013). Income–happiness paradox in Australia: Testing the theories of adaptation and social comparison. Economic Modelling, 30(1), 900–910.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Shields, M., & Wooden, M. (2003). Investigating the role of neighbourhood characteristics in determining life satisfaction. Canberra: Paper prepared for the Department of Family and Community Services.Google Scholar
  43. Shields, M., Price, S., & Wooden, M. (2009). Life satisfaction and the economic and social characteristics of neighbourhoods. Journal of Population Economics, 22(2), 421–443.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Sortino, F. (2010). The Sortino framework for constructing portfolios: Focusing on desired target return to optimize upside potential relative to downside risk. Boston: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  45. Stiglitz, J., Sen, A., & Fitoussi, J.-P. (2009). Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Paris.Google Scholar
  46. Tomyn, A., Cummins, R., & Norrish, J. (2014). The subjective wellbeing of ‘at-risk’ Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian adolescents. Journal of Happiness Studies,. doi: 10.1007/s10902-014-9535-2.Google Scholar
  47. Uchida, Y., Norasakkunkit, V., & Kitayama, S. (2004). Cultural constructions of happiness: Theory and emprical evidence. Journal of Happiness Studies, 5(3), 223–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. United Nations Development Programme (2014). Table 2: Human Development Index trends, 1980–2013. Accessed 4 Oct 2014.
  49. United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (2006). Report of the meeting on indigenous peoples and indicators of wellbeing. New York: United Nations.Google Scholar
  50. Veenhoven, R. (2005). Return of inequality in modern society? Test by dispersion of life-satisfaction across time and nations. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6(4), 457–487.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Waterworth, P., Rosenberg, M., Braham, R., Pescud, M., & Dimmock, J. (2014). The effect of social support on the health of Indigenous Australians in a metropolitan community. Social Science and Medicine, 119(1), 139–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Watson, N., & Wooden, M. (2010). The HILDA survey: Progress and future developments. The Australian Economic Review, 43(3), 326–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Watson, N., & Wooden, M. (2012). The HILDA survey: A case study in the design and development of a successful household panel study. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, 3(3), 369–381.Google Scholar
  54. Watson, N., & Wooden, M. (2014). Re-engaging with survey non-respondents: Evidence from three household panels. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society), 177(2), 499–522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wooden, M., & Li, N. (2014). Panel conditioning and subjective well-being. Social Indicators Research, 117(1), 235–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Yap, M., & Biddle, N. (2010). Gender gaps in Indigenous socioeconomic outcomes: Australian regional comparisons and international possibilities. The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 1(2), 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew Manning
    • 1
  • Christopher L. Ambrey
    • 2
  • Christopher M. Fleming
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy ResearchThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.Urban Research ProgramGriffith UniversityNathanAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Accounting, Finance and EconomicsGriffith UniversityNathanAustralia

Personalised recommendations