We Do Better When We Do for Others

Apr 14, 2014, 3:15 AM, Posted by Jody L. Struve

Boy peddles on a bike to power a smoothie machine. Jody’s son mashing it up at MakerFaire NYC

This morning, I figured out how to save the planet. That’s the power of Twitter, friends. (Or that’s the power of Twitter when you’re bleary-eyed at 5:10 a.m., and meant to hit the Weather app to find out if your kids’ school might close, but instead you see a tweet that the United Nations has concluded global warming is indeed our fault, next to a tweet about food trucks, next to one about ...)

Twitter allows you to take in lots of disparate information at odd hours, and that can result in ... odd ideas.

In a flash, I saw an opportunity to solve two problems with one solution—a mash-up, if you will. By 5:15 a.m., still half asleep, looking at my smartphone, it became clear to me that the way to save the planet was to create “energy parks” that generate power through peoples’ physical activity, addressing obesity and climate change in one fell swoop.

Stay with me here.

Sitting is killing us, and the planet needs power; why not bring these two seemingly dissimilar problems together to help them solve each other?

I imagined our cities, towns, highway rest stops, the vacant lots next to our community gardens, all filled with public, energy-generating pedal parks. People coming together—everyone from hardcore spin rats to generously-sized citizens—to put in their five, 10, or 30 minutes to save the Earth. We had become a nation—nay, a world—of superheroes!

It was a beautiful vision: People pedaling to power the planet at public parks. I got up to make coffee.

Sure, these parks might be filled at any given time by people who were already athletically inclined, but they might also spark increased physical activity for many more who had never found the proper motivation to break a sweat.

Because we do better when we do for others.

That’s the beauty of a solutions mash-up—it can harness the power of altruism. Not only are two problems solved for the price of one, but altruism and all the potential it holds for motivating action and improving the health of the actor is thrown in for free.

I wrote once about connecting health goals to a purpose larger than one’s self in order to help behavior change stick. I was reminded of that power again while reading a recent post on Susannah Fox’s blog, titled On Purpose. Susannah writes about research showing that people were more likely to adhere to a difficult medical regimen, one their life depended on, if adherence was paired with donations to a local burn center. What is it about doing for others that makes hard things doable? Sure, it lights up our brain’s reward center to give of ourselves. Often “doing for” means “doing with” and that’s also a happy thing.

But perhaps being active in the name of something other than our own health or personal goals might also tap into a freeing mechanism that allows us to bypass or dispense with the murky messages, societal pressures, and self-created obstacles that can derail or distract us from sticking to our best laid plans. Choosing to act for another’s benefit may let us compartmentalize the tangled hurdles that so often manifest as “I can’t” or “I quit” and categorize them anew as “no longer applies.” Maybe that’s why my son is a master cleaner-upper at his friend’s house but struggles to put more than two Legos away at home.

So, back to my “energy park.” Is pedaling our way to a smaller carbon footprint even possible? Aren’t pedal-powered generators barely able to produce enough energy to get an incandescent bulb to flicker if you pedal at top speed for like 10 minutes?

True, inventors may not yet have perfected the ultimate people-powered energy-producing machine...but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. (Psst, Kickstarter inventors, let’s get cracking on that!)

In the meantime, here’s what is possible. Two brilliant young women invented the SOCCKET—kick the soccer ball around for 30-minutes, generate enough electricity do your homework by light for hours. Then there’s the entrepreneur in Kenya who is perfecting a device that captures energy from running or standing feet.

What perfect timing! Just as we have become the most inactive people to walk the earth, and just as we are at risk of destroying ourselves and the planet from physical inactivity and dirty energy, the same advancements that have fostered our sedentary lifestyle will soon equip us to be ready harvesters of our own kinetic energy. Imagine this: Kids in classrooms across the country generating enough clean power to charge their tablets by sitting, and moving, on rigged energy-gathering bounce balls. Next time you’re taking a long commute on the train, why not spend some of your time in the Save the Planet Car and pedal some clean power to all the laptops and smartphones you and your travel mates have plugged in?

We do better when we do for others, true. But how much more motivated will we be if money is involved? What if energy-capturing tools became efficient and common enough to noticeably slash our utility bills? What if living “off the grid,” electrically speaking, became a matter of wearing and engaging with devices that could turn our activity, motion, and heat in to usable energy? And, what if, come tax time each year, you could log your earth-saving Pedal Park hours as a deduction?

My grandfather use to get up early to till the fields and chop the wood. My future granddaughter may be getting up early to harvest a slew of energy-collecting devices from the family’s clothes, skate board wheels, backpacks, and dryer tumbler and replacing them with fresh collectors. Setting the traps, so to speak. Being more active might become a necessary part of getting through our days once again!

Personally, I can’t wait to watch the screen on my town’s public energy-generating park flash (in some energy-conserving way, of course): “This Pedal Power Park has generated enough energy to light our town for two months,” while my family is spinning away.

Yes, we do better when we do for others. Imagine how well we can do when we do for everyone.

Let’s get active and save ourselves, and our planet. It’s time we come together and start solving for each other.

What other solution mash-ups can you envision that allow us to improve our health while solving other problems at the same time?