One of the central tenets of democracy is that individuals know what is best for themselves and their family. This has been enshrined in the principle of one-person, one-vote. More recently, it has influenced the movement towards measures of gross national happiness (in Bhutan) and the establishment of a Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress by the French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, headed by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean Paul Fitoussi.

Australia made an early contribution to this movement with the annual publication of Measures of Australia’s Progress, beginning in 2001.

Rather than make the assumption that higher incomes are the be-all and end-all of a society’s progress, these movements recognise that it is legitimate to ask people whether they are happy or not, as well as whether or not they are satisfied with their life. Furthermore, by tracking people’s responses to such questions through time, it is possible to make a more informed judgment about the state of a given society and the effectiveness of government policy.

Several criticisms of government policy in Australia towards its indigenous peoples have used opposition to paternalism to support their alternative proposals. Some, including the then minister for indigenous affairs Amanda Vanstone, have argued that particular policies have forced indigenous people to live in “cultural museums”. Others have argued that policy in Australia is pressuring the indigenous population to take on mainstream notions of development that are contrary to their individual desires.

Given the basis in individual agency of both critiques, an assessment of their validity would presumably take into account under what circumstances indigenous Australians themselves say they are happy or sad, as well as healthy or unhealthy.

In 2008, the Australian Bureau of Statistics undertook the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), which asked these very questions. In the months since data from the survey was released to the public, myself and colleagues at the Australian National University have been crunching the numbers to see what insights emerge. Some are to be expected, others might surprise you.

First, and probably least surprisingly, the analysis showed that health is an aspect and a determinant of well-being. Improvements in indigenous health outcomes will probably lead to a substantial improvement in subjective well-being. Reducing socio-economic disadvantage will probably help achieve this aim. However, the gap is unlikely to close without significant change in the indigenous specific determinants such as discrimination.

Another important set of findings relate to the Community Development and Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme. This scheme is a bit like work-for-the-dole, with the main difference being that the projects are directly tied to community development aims. What the analysis showed was that, although there is a statistical difference between indigenous Australians on CDEP employment and those in other employment in terms of subjective well-being, this difference is relatively small.

On the other hand, those in CDEP employment have much higher emotional well-being and self-assessed health than the unemployed, the other natural comparison group. The analysis would suggest, therefore, that efforts to move people from CDEP to mainstream employment may have a positive impact on subjective well-being. However, if done so through increasing unemployment, then there may be significant costs, especially in the short term.

Another finding was that those indigenous Australians who participate in indigenous cultural events and activities report higher levels of emotional well-being, even after controlling for a range of other characteristics. Furthermore, those who recognise homelands are more likely to maintain their land, language and culture, even if they do not live on their homelands.

On the other hand, another important finding from the analysis of the NATSISS was that higher levels of formal education have a strong positive association with many cultural maintenance variables. Rather than being in conflict with mainstream notions of well-being, maintenance of indigenous culture appears to support them. These social or cultural returns to education may receive greater prominence in policy discourse and debate.

One of the consistent findings from the analysis was the large difference in measures of well-being between those in remote compared to non-remote areas. This may not surprise you. What may surprise the reader was the direction — those indigenous Australians in remote areas have higher levels of emotional well-being and better self-assessed health than those in non-remote Australia.

Governments may have financial reasons to encourage indigenous Australians to move from remote to non-remote Australia and there may also be other socio-economic motivations. However, the NATSISS confirms that there may be significant trade-offs in terms of well-being.

These are but a selection of the results from the analysis. For more details on the analysis of the 2008 NATSISS, go here.

In this era of “evidence-based policy”, it is more important than ever that we listen to those who are likely to be affected by any policy changes. The beauty of a survey such as the NATSISS is that all voices are given equal weight with no single opinion dominating.

It would benefit all of us to listen to what the 8000 or so Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who responded to the survey have to say.

*Dr Nicholas Biddle is a Fellow at the Australian National University. This article originally appeared at The Number Cruncher.