The Bizarre Psychological Reasons Why We Love Apple Picking

This popular fall activity gives us more than an excuse for apple pie.
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This popular fall activity gives us more than an excuse for apple pie.

As soon as September began, we were already dreaming up plans for our favorite fall activities: visits to a pumpkin patch, running around in corn mazes, apple picking on a cold afternoon.

Having lived in NYC for many years, I assumed apple picking was an East Coast or a Midwest thing. But as I embark on my first autumn back in California, I’ve found that this classic fall activity is more universally revered than I thought. In fact, except for the warmest parts of Texas and Florida, apples grow all over the continental U.S. (the world’s second-largest apple producer), according to the USDA.

What’s with our uncanny obsession with apple picking? Perhaps it’s the warm spiced cider and apple crumbles we can craft out of a modest harvest. But I had a hunch that there was something more to it, so I asked experts to weigh in on the reasons why we love apple picking. What they had to say was (surprise, surprise) a bit odd but also quite heartwarming.

Reaping

Debbie Mandel, stress management specialist and author of Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life, tells me, “Apple picking sums up the credo of this country’s puritanical roots: You reap what you sow.” In other words, much of what happens to us is a consequence of our actions.

Mandel describes apple picking as “a happy memory from childhood, which reminds us of our spontaneity and joy” and “an archetypal image of the harvest of the 'forbidden fruit,' which is joyous as it is climactic, preceding death as depicted in winter.” In other words, Mandel notes, “This is the last hurrah.”

Partake in apple picking, and you reap the nostalgic feels, the sweet fruits, the rekindled friendships. Don’t, and you miss out on all the joys it imparts. According to Mandel, it’s up to us to brighten our life by “flicking the switch” to turn on our inner light. Apple picking is one such switch.

That last bit about death and winter sounds a little weird, but it makes sense. More on that below.

Readiness

In his poem “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost wrote:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

Stick with me here: I have a master’s in English. Why did Frost feel so compelled to write an entire poem on apple picking? Correction: His poem is actually about after apple picking (aka, winter).

Ben G. Adams, Columbia Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and author of The Creative Process Diet, says, “Winter can feel cold and is associated with death and loss. It automatically invokes within us the instinct to get cozy, safe, strong and ready to survive.” Adams says that nurturing this basic human instinct is what makes the glow of the holiday season so special to us and explains Frost’s fixation on the essence of winter sleep: “The scent of apples.”

Renewal

Jenifer Joy Madden, founder of The Durable Human, says people love apple picking “because they are getting up close and personal with nature, an activity that has almost disappeared in our busy, digital age. . . . When we pick apples, we fully utilize our senses and exercise our dormant musculature. . . . Being in the breeze and sunshine naturally helps us feel calmer and more emotionally in control.”

In her book How to Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design, Madden quotes noted California State University psychologist Larry Rosen, who has extensively researched the human–technology interconnection. “Rosen says that since we now have such constant mental input throughout the day, our brains need a break every one to two hours: Taking a nature break for just a few minutes can decrease stress and increase our brain’s ability to process information.” Madden adds, “Apple picking is a sustained nature break, so it is especially refreshing to our minds.”

Ritual and Relationship

Lastly, we love apple picking because we love rituals, and science shows that rituals are good for us and our relationships. Adams says, “It has a lot to do with rituals and life transitions—the changing patterns of the seasons evoke in us an awareness of the possibility of change within ourselves. We find ourselves wanting to interact with that change, given that we too are part of nature.” In this way, he deems apple picking “a very spiritual experience.”

For many Americans, apple picking is a symbolic ritual rather than an instrumental routine. A Journal of Family Psychology review of fifty years of research found that family rituals “are associated with marital satisfaction, adolescents’ sense of personal identity, children’s health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships.” According to the review, “Rituals . . . involve symbolic communication and convey ‘this is who we are’ as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations. Also, there is often an emotional imprint where once the act is completed, the individual may replay it in memory to recapture some of the positive experience.” By coming back to a ritual like apple picking, you’ll gather more than a basket of red orbs; you’ll also glean a host of benefits for you and your loved ones.

Far from being a novel nicety, dare we say that an annual trip to the apple orchard should be a fall necessity. With winter on the horizon, let’s savor the kind of reaping, readying, renewal, and ritual that only autumn brings.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Trahan