Amy Sexton, Purdue University Global Writing Center Tutor
The world of academia often includes tight deadlines, unfamiliar terminology and jargon, complex theories and ideas, and high expectations, for students and educators alike. Many of us may look for creative outlets to reduce some of the stress that inevitably comes along with all of these things. One such outlet that more and more adults are turning to is coloring, making coloring books geared toward adults a hit sensation (Raphel, 2015). What’s behind this trend? The answer may be surprising. It seems that adults are turning to coloring for a variety of reasons, including to take a break from the responsibilities of adulthood, realize some of the same benefits that meditation offers, and feel a natural high.
Anyone who uses social media has likely noticed memes and quotes centered on the notion that being an adult is, well, hard work. Popular culture has transformed the word “adult” from a noun to a verb, as in “I don’t want to ‘adult’ today.” This resistance to the responsibility of being an adult may help explain the popularity of adult coloring books. Raphel (2016) suggests that they appeal to the “Peter Pan market”, those adults who want to recall the simplicity of childhood and play. As Raphel notes, the Peter Pan market may be on to something. Researchers have positively linked child-like play such as coloring to being more successful academically, better managing stress, feeling an increased sense of well-being, and being more innovative in the workplace (Proyer & Wagner, 2015).
Another reason to take up coloring is that it may provide benefits similar to those realized through meditation (“7 Unexpected”, n.d.; Shreeves, 2014). The positive effects of meditation on mental and physical health have been widely reported, and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (2016) has compiled data that suggests meditation may be effective for lowering blood pressure, helping with symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, and depression and encouraging healthy brain behaviors. While meditation often involves focused routines, coloring may be related to other less structured, creative activities, like cooking, doodling, and knitting that are meditative and repetitive, and as such, relaxing and calming (“7 Unexpected”, n.d.; Shreeves, 2014).
The pleasure that some may feel when coloring may also be directly related to a natural, biologically- based high. As Shreeves (2014) notes, some researchers have suggested that creative concentration results in increased dopamine levels in our brains, giving us “a feel-good high” (para. 5). Furthermore, one genre of adult coloring books consists of pictures and sheets of intricate and complex patterns. According to neuroscientist, Daniel Bor, the human brain, specifically the cortex, seeks to discover patterns and fit them into what we already know about the world (as cited in Szalavitz, 2012). Bor suggests that this desire to understand patterns and figure things out explains why so many people enjoy crossword puzzles and sudoku (as cited in Szalavitz, 2012). It makes sense, then, that the pattern-seeking parts of our brains may also appreciate the endeavor of coloring in elaborate patterns to create individual, instant works of art.
These are just a few of the benefits that coloring may offer, so the next time you need a break from studying, researching, or grading, or want to unwind after a long day of homework and/or seminars, consider taking a few minutes to color or engaging in a similar meditative activity like knitting, cooking, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Even better, find one of your favorite little people and spend a few moments doing one of these activities with him or her. Relaxation plus quality time together equals a win-win situation!
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016). Meditation in depth. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm#hed3
Proyer, R.T. & Wagner, L. (2015, Winter). Playfulness in adults revisited: The signal theory in German speakers. American Journal of Play, 7(2), 201-227. Retrieved from http://www.journalofplay.org/
Raphel, A. (2015). Why adults are buying coloring books (for themselves). Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-adults-are-buying-coloring-books-for-themselves
7 Unexpected things that happen when adults start coloring. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.artthesystem.com/2015/12/7-unexpected-things-that-happen-when-adults-start-coloring.html?m=1
Shreeves, R. (2014). Why crafting is good for mental health. Retrieved from http://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/blogs/why-crafting-is-good-for-mental-health
Szalavitz, M. (2012, Sept. 21). Why solving puzzles is fun: Q&A with consciousness researcher Daniel Bor. Time. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2012/09/21/why-solving-puzzles-is-fun-qa-with-consciousness-researcher-daniel-bor/