Cowan Palace: Gratitude and Other Food for Thought

Ashley Cowan is thankful for you.

 Courtesy of Café Gratitude’s website.

Courtesy of Café Gratitude’s website.

Thanksgiving. It’s that special time of year when all at once you’re surrounded by seasonal selections and the pressure to be grateful. Most likely, somewhere between your first and second serving of pumpkin pie, someone asks you what you’re thankful for this year. You savor a bite of that flavorful fall-inspired dessert and silently wonder if you’ll be judged harshly for showing more appreciation for food over family. But hey, that’s okay. Because the thing is, acknowledging gratitude, in any shape or form, can change your life.

When the National Institute of Health decided to examine blood flow in the brain while subjects focused on feelings of gratitude, they found higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. Which as you bio kids know, is the area of the brain that controls some major body functions, like eating (told you it’s good to be grateful for food), drinking, and sleeping. It’s also a targeted area for measuring metabolism and your stress. As the study progressed, it soon became clear that those who had higher feelings of gratitude were the people who exercised more, slept better, experienced lower levels of general body pain, and tended to identify with more positive emotions on an everyday basis.

But how can you become one of these happier, healthier, more grateful folks? Well, it takes work. It’s a lifestyle decision with a daily choice: how am I going to view the world today? It’s easy to get caught up in negativity. Your job sucks, you can’t afford a needed vacation, these winter hours just make you want to hibernate, whatever. Once you start focusing on less positive stimuli, your brain has a much harder time suddenly switching to a happier extreme. It becomes much easier to mentally trap yourself in a cruel cycle. While being grateful or appreciative isn’t the same as simply being positive and happy, it can significantly alter your thinking when you attempt to counter negative thoughts with it. And the good news is, once you shift it, and reward your mind with additional affirmative thoughts, you’ll be able to take advantage of the chemistry magic in your brain.

Maybe you’re thinking, “easier said than done, Ashley!” And to that I say, “thank you for remembering my name!” Also, seeing as this is the time of year to reflect and be thankful, here are 3 of my suggestions to spice up that dish with a little shake of gratitude.

1.) Give More Specific Compliments (and Order Extra Helpings of Them)

Instead of just telling your mom that you love her pumpkin pie, tell her a special feature about why you enjoy it so much. By identifying a specific detail, for example, the creamy, cool consistency or the subtle use of nutmeg matched with cinnamon, it helps you to focus on being thankful in a genuine way by deepening the experience and creating a longer lasting impact. Look around you. Take the time to give people real compliments! Make a goal to try and reach out to a new person each day. Or more if you’re feeling it! You will be amazed how much a small, kind word can do to someone who needs it. Trust me. You get to shine a light on your enjoyment and appreciation while uniquely brightening someone else’s day. Shine on!

2.) Approach Crappy Situations with Appreciation

Okay. This one sounds hard. And crazy. And super unrealistic. I get that because it’s also a struggle for me. But I didn’t say, immediately feel thankful after your car breaks down or you get dumped. Because sometimes stuff is just the worse. So allow yourself to process the anger, grief, whatever, first. Cry, scream, and talk to Ben & Jerry about it!

I’m thankful for you, Ben & Jerry! And this picture courtesy of, which is a real thing

I’m thankful for you, Ben & Jerry! And this picture courtesy of, which is a real thing.

But then, do what you can to step away from it and think of how you can twist the moment into something else. It can be a minor, simple detail. Maybe it gave you the chance to see a place of the city you wouldn’t have stopped in otherwise or perhaps it’s the excuse to look into carpooling. Maybe being newly single means finally catching up on Glee (your coworker SWEARS it’s getting “better” this year) or giving yourself permission to get a crazy haircut. Who knows! It’s not easy. But if you can try to find one thing that you can be grateful about in a terrible moment, I promise it will help heal those awful feelings a little faster.

3.) Write it Down.

Imagine being able to present an entire list of things you were thankful for at Thanksgiving instead of racking your brain for cliché blanketed answers. Maybe that’d be considered dorky. But then again, you’re reading a theater blog when you could be looking at pictures of the Kardashians, so maybe you’re already on my team. In any case, if you made it a habit to write down one thing you were grateful for each day, you’d be able to restart your brain and rock the positive effects.

Kim may be sad that you’re not looking at her photos. But Ashley’s glad you’re still here!

Kim may be sad that you’re not looking at her photos. But Ashley’s glad you’re still here!

So to conclude, here are a few things I’m grateful for: food – judge away, I love this time of year for many reasons and one of them is absolutely because I find it to be delicious, my fiancé Will’s jokes, when my sister talks to me in one of our designated pet voices, how my mom ends each phone call telling me she’s proud of me, getting an email from my dad that both promotes the Connecticut weather and quiet, beautiful hope for a scenic season, emoticon-happy texts from my brother, reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in years thanks to social networking, writing this blog and meeting to talk about my dreams of starting a Theater Pub podcast all on the same day, blankets, Dunkins coffee brewed at home, Hallmark holiday movies, and all of you reading this right here, right now. You’re a part of this community and I greatly appreciate it. Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving!