Happiness across cultures: How happy are different Indigenous communities and why?

Happiness across cultures: How happy are different Indigenous communities and why?

By Anna Gniwotta
on 2021-06-23
  • Research
  • Indigenous and local knowledge

Happiness has been widely studied in Western science, yet still remains somewhat a mystery to researchers. This is especially true when considering happiness within Indigenous cultures, which is underrepresented in research. Cross-cultural comparisons of happiness exist to compare the subjective wellbeing of people and find drivers and similarities to better understand how happiness can be achieved in different populations. Reyes-García et al. (2021) therefore sought to fill the research gap of Indigenous happiness research, by looking at subjective wellbeing within Indigenous communities.

The authors researched subjective happiness in tropical Indigenous cultures, as these cultures differed from those most represented in happiness research, in that they are kinship-value based, with a subsistence livelihood orientation, and exist in rapidly changing societies that are becoming more reliant on cash flow due to a number of external pressures. Three tropical Indigenous groups were studied: the Tsimane' peoples in Bolivian lowland Amazonia, the Baka people of southeastern Cameroon, and the Punan people of Indonesian Borneo. Reyes-García et al. (2021) conducted open-ended questionnaires within the framework of a larger project, to explore levels and drivers of subjective wellbeing in these societies.

The authors found that while the three Indigenous groups had varying levels and reasons for their subjective wellbeing, they also had somewhat similar results. All societies had life satisfaction levels that were above neutral levels, therefore they considered themselves to be moderately happy. However, they mostly only provided explanations for these life satisfaction levels when they were negative, which indicated that moderate happiness was the normal state and explanations were only needed for exceptionally negative or positive circumstances. Reyes-García et al. (2021) also observed that life satisfaction was most often associated with health and social life factors within these Indigenous groups.

Reyes-García et al. (2021) observed that their findings matched existing research that suggested that income and material wealth was potentially not as important as social relationships and good health in explaining the life satisfaction of Indigenous peoples. This differed from happiness drivers in industrial societies and highlighted that drivers of happiness are culture-specific. Therefore Reyes-García et al. (2021) maintained that policies addressing wellbeing should be tailored to different groups and target the factors reducing their life satisfaction, therefore in Indigenous societies they should aim to treat health problems and improve cultural interactions, natural environments and community needs to sustain Indigenous peoples' happiness, cultures, and ways of life.

The authors emphasise that culturally grounded happiness perspectives are extremely diverse, similarly to the Indigenous communities themselves, however there are still cross-cultural similarities. Reyes-García et al. (2021) observed that in general Indigenous peoples in this research were moderately happy, yet gave little explanation as to why, however their happiness when explained was based on social and health factors. The authors suggested that to create greater subjective wellbeing, factors that make people unhappy should be alleviated. More research and efforts to understand and appreciate self-reported Indigenous wellbeing indicators are needed in order to further improve Indigenous communities' happiness levels.

To read more about Indigenous peoples' subjective wellbeing, read the full article by Reyes-García et al. (2021) here.

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