I do not come from a country where fall is a Big Deal. After an Australian summer, the cooler periods of autumn — and their heavy seasonal rains — in March are viewed with some relief, but not as a particularly special time on the calendar. However, the American perspective on fall is decidedly different: it seems to be universally agreed that fall is a time for snuggly sweaters, hanging around in pumpkin patches, drinking hot cocoa, and delighting in the fact that you can wear tights again. The American love for the autumnal months, experts tell Bustle, is based on some interesting psychological phenomena.
Part of your love for fall is likely rooted in culture. In America, it's a season with two holidays — Halloween and Thanksgiving — that are important features of the calendar, and are either uniquely American (in the case of Thanksgiving) or celebrated in the U.S. in ways that aren't found elsewhere in the world. (Nowhere else on Earth is candy corn an actual edible food.) These holidays make the autumn months a time of positive associations, from Halloween costumes to Thanksgiving turkey. Cultural texts praising fall, like John Keats' 'To Autumn' (that's the one with the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" line you may remember from Bridget Jones' Diary), are also embedded in the English-speaking school curriculum worldwide. Certain elements of the American love of fall are likely communicated through something called "cultural memory," or the collective memories of a society.
Other elements of fall, however, are more universal, like the enthusiasm for changing autumn foliage. In Japan, going out to view trees in their resplendent fall colors is a tradition dating back to the 8th century known as momijigari. Autumnal feasts — think, again, Thanksgiving —are also pretty common. For farming communities in the Northern Hemisphere, autumn has historically been the season of harvest, when food is plentiful, and harvest festivals encourage celebration.
We may also react to cooler temperatures in a more positive way because of biological reactions. In 2012, researchers discovered that cooler temperatures made some people more likely to select films that they associated with "psychological warmth," like romantic comedies. When the temperature outside is lower, people reach for experiences that make them feel closer to others — which may contribute to the cultural experience of fall as a season for love (or a season for cuffing). If you associate the cooler (but not yet punishingly cold) fall season with snuggling inside with comfort food and heart-warming movies, this may be why.
However, for some people, fall doesn't herald a positive flood of emotions at all — and that may actually give us some clues as to broader attitudes to autumn leaves and pumpkin spice. "The change of seasons does affect a subset of the population pretty significantly, but when we look at all the people in the world, it's not the case that everyone is affected by the seasons," Dr. Kathryn Roecklein, PhD, at the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Psychology tells Bustle.
And, importantly, this subset of the population doesn't view fall through rose-colored glasses. "In autumn, the subset of the individuals who become depressed in winter" — people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — "dread the fall holidays," Dr. Roecklein tells Bustle. "Whenever they see things like leaves changing color, or Halloween candy in the stores, these signs of the seasons changing are an environmental cue that winter is coming." Part of their emotions, she says, have to do with"disenfranchisement." "People who are dreading the winter are not able to enjoy all these fall holidays and all the things that the broader population loves," she says.
Dr. Roecklein's own research shows an important factor in SAD: psychology. "There are people who have what we call seasonal beliefs, like 'I'm just not at my best in the winter'," she tells Bustle. "We've found that people who endorse these beliefs are more likely to depressed in the winter." People develop those beliefs through their childhood and adulthood, and Dr. Roecklein says there's likely an interaction between biological vulnerability to depressed mood in certain seasons and these thoughts, but it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People with these beliefs, she says, "learn these cognitions, but the cognitions cause the depression to start even earlier."
To a lesser degree, it's possible that attitudes towards fall among people who don't experience SAD are also rooted in personal beliefs, like "Fall is a time for family," "Pumpkin spice is the best," and "Autumn leaves are gorgeous." You may be activating positive memories of fall from your childhood; nostalgia is a powerful psychological tool. Or you may simply carry strong feelings that autumn is the best of all seasons, which will lead you to experience it in a more positive way.
Peer pressure to enjoy autumn, even if you may not think it's the best thing since sliced bread, can also play a part. Humans are programmed on an evolutionary level to mirror those around us to prevent social rejection, and when everybody in your social groups is delighting in autumn and putting pumpkin photoshoots on Instagram, you'll likely feel pressure to express the same feelings — even if you detest the cold and think turkey is hideously tasteless.
Whether you love autumn or are simply relieved that the oven-like heat of the summer is over, your affection for the season has some strong psychological bases. If you just want to crawl under the covers until summer is back, though, your feelings are no less valid.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.