Happy smiling young woman lying down the the Autumn leaves outdoors
Mental Health

Psychology of change: why autumn has the power to make us happier than ever

Embracing change is said to be key to a happier life – so it makes sense that autumn brings with it a wealth of psychological benefits. 

Shorter days, darker nights, blustery hairstyle-ruining winds, and the perpetual threat of drizzle and grey clouds; it’s all too easy to assume that autumn is the harbinger of misery. Quite contrarily, though, autumn – or Fall, if you want to get all American about it – is one of the most popular seasons of all.

Why? Well, it’s easy to take a surface-level approach to this: it’s all about the knitwear, right? Or the oh-so-Instagrammable autumn leaves? Maybe it’s the plethora of hot chocolates and pumpkin spice lattes? Or, perhaps, that ‘back to school’ feeling hanging in the air – the one that makes you want to change your life for the better and/or, to quote You’ve Got Mail, send loved ones bouquets of newly sharpened pencils?

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All of the above is lovely. More than lovely, actually; throw in a carved pumpkin, a bucket of sweets, an exciting new TV schedule, and a bevy of scary movies, and you basically have my version of perfection. 

However, there’s a reason why autumn impacts us on a psychological level, too, and it’s all to do with the fact that this is the season of change.

Studies have repeatedly shown us that people who embrace and thrive in changing times are more than just resilient – they’re open-minded, curious, driven, and so much more. Indeed, many have suggested that embracing change is the key to happiness.

“Nothing is stable, and we need to come to terms with that,” John Sellars, author of Lessons In Stoicism and philosophy lecturer at Royal Holloway, tells the BBC.

“The natural world is made up of a series of processes that are changing, but if we want to live happily with nature we have to live in harmony with it.” 

Autumn, of course, is synonymous with change. We watch the natural world shift and alter around us, the green foliage we’ve become so used to suddenly an explosion of reds, and golds, and yellows. 

The days, too, feel incredibly different; night descends more quickly, and the temperature drops almost without warning. And then there are all the other little rituals we partake in at home, seemingly without realising it; we swap out our lighter duvets for our winter ones, crank up the radiators, light more candles (hygge has a lot to answer for), and we start to roll out our autumn/winter wardrobes, too. Bare legs are swathed in black opaques, sandals swapped for stomper boots, strapless dresses for chunky knits.

Essentially, everything is suddenly different. And Melissa Gratias, a productivity coach, author, and speaker with a doctorate in industrial and organisational psychology, tells Psychology Today that this triggers something within us.

Golden Autumn Leaves on Blue Sky Background - stock photo
Autumn offers up a very visible example of change in action.

“Some people respond to change in a way that’s similar to how they respond to a significant loss – with grief,” says Gratias.

“Their feelings are normal and understandable, but to be resilient and happy, these individuals need to move through grief toward acceptance. [Because], sure, the leaves die and fall off the trees, but they also become mulch for new growth.”

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Essentially, change pushes us out of our comfort zones – but it also offers up a new perspective, as well as a multitude of new opportunities. It promotes personal growth, as it encourages us to be more flexible and adaptable. 

And our ability to embrace change positively allows us not to just move forward in life, but to develop the self-esteem and trust we need to believe in ourselves.

Close-up portrait of young african woman using smartphone in cafe. - stock photo
Embracing change, even the littlest change, promotes resilience and happiness.

Yes, autumn is a soft change – but it is still one which triggers all of these same emotional benefits. And, in easing us into a place of acceptance, it helps to prepare us in turn for bigger, trickier life transformations, too.

As psychotherapist Julia Samuel tells BBC Culture: “It’s the paradox that the more you allow yourself to accept that change is inevitable, the more likely you are to change intentionally and adapt.”

All hail autumn, then. It seems there’s far more to this season of mist and mellow fruitfulness than we give it credit for.

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