Netly: The Third Screen

Saving big cats and studying fat cats. How much money makes you happy?

Posted on: October 22, 2010

[This is totally off topic but I’m at Pop!Tech this week.]

The Tiger Guy stole the show yesterday at Pop!Tech. He got a standing O from the 500 people crowded into the Opera House—the site of an annual conference in Camden, Maine, where the digerati meet the socially conscious. Or maybe it’s more a case of the digerati ARE the socially conscious. But you get the point—everyone here wants to save the world.

Alan Rabinowitz, the Tiger Guy’s proper name, is actually doing just that. The native New Yorker dedicated his life to protecting what he calls “big cats” and is CEO of Panthera, a wildlife organization that promotes conservation of endangered species. That’s a laudable goal, of course, and Rabinowitz, 56, has been at its forefront since grad school. A stutterer as a kid, mortified by his condition and picked on by his peers, he clammed up around humans and would only express himself, verbally, to animals.

His affinity for non-humans led him to the jungle, where he worked with endangered jaguars, and discovered his raison d’etre. After setting up preserves for jaguars and tigers and other cats across Asia, he had a horrible realization a few years ago: preserves alone might be doing more harm than good. (This is why he’s speaking at a conference who’s theme this year is failure.)

The animals were being corralled in safe havens, but their numbers were steadily shrinking. His epiphany: create a protected migratory corridor that would allow the animals to roam their old routes, in some cases linking the preserves. He’s done this now from Mexico to Argentina and in parts of Asia, but there’s lots more to do.

One of the many remarkable things about Rabinowitz (intelligence, passion and wit are also on the short list) is how he parlays his exuberant misanthropy into a schtick that plays well to crowds like this. These are people, after all, who love, and who want to be loved in return. Hence the standing ovation.

This morning began with an interesting presentation by Elizabeth Dunn, a researcher at University of British Columbia who’s studying why money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness. In fact, she can actually find the price point where money no longer matters:

“Once people are making about $75,000 a year, additional income ceases to have any impact on people’s day to day happiness,” she said, smiling happily. Studies show that “the more money people had the less they reported savoring the little pleasures of life,” she explained.

Dunn’s happiness research involved a study of people of various income levels who were asked: if you’re walking in a forest and come upon a beautiful waterfall and lagoon, would you jump in? The richer you were, the less likely you were to take the plunge, she found.

Dunn believes that this is evidence that the more money you have the more you feel like you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it. At higher incomes, money devalues life. (Of course, it could be that people who are more in control of their impulses are more inclined to be rich. But she did not discuss that hypothesis.)

So how does one explain how happy Bill Gates looks? For him, and for those of you who are making more than $75,000, there is a key to happiness, she said: Her research indicates that the richer you are the happier you are spending money—on other people. While she did not get a standing ovation, many of the attendees smiled.

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