As of this writing, five of the top 30 titles on Amazon’s best-seller list are adult coloring books. With over 2000 titles out there and rising, the phenomenon of adult coloring-within-the-lines just seems to have no end in sight. Just why have adult coloring books become such a phenomenon? And are there personal benefits to methodically filling in a pre-made design with crayons or pencils?
If you read any of the numerous articles and posts on adult coloring books, you’ll quickly find a few consistent comments. Proponents use descriptors like “meditative,” “mindful,” and “spiritual” to explain the benefits; others imply that shading in the various designs are a way to focus, create a work of beauty, or find personal satisfaction through distraction and diversion. And some even go as far as to propose that coloring books are a form of personal therapy, even “art therapy,” fueling the idea that coloring is an inner experience with impacts similar to meditation or yoga. People who gather for adult coloring book events are now referred to as “colorists;” these groups enthusiastically proclaim the mental health benefits of shading within the lines while sharing various coloring tips for health and well-being with their Crayola®-carrying peers.
There is some sketchy (pun intended) evidence that the repetitive nature of coloring may be a form of self-regulation and self-soothing. Participants themselves are providing a large amount of anecdotal, post-hoc data on the outcomes in this respect. Just read the numerous comments on social media and various blogs on the topic and it is easy to see that coloring serves a purpose for those individuals who are in need of some stress reduction. The motion of crayon or pencil moving back and forth within pre-made boundaries is perceived as a form of containment, mastery and mind-numbing escape from the here-and-now.
But as an art therapist and psychotherapist, I do sigh out loud each time I read yet again another testimonial on what seem to be suddenly the ever-increasing benefits and personal epiphanies resulting from a coloring book. Here’s why:
Coloring is Not Mindfulness. First, a relationship with an adult coloring book is not a form of meditation nor is it a form of mindfulness. The fact that the concepts of meditation and mindfulness are being used to describe coloring pre-made designs is, in fact, insulting to these practices that have deep cultural, and spiritual foundations. Let’s respect these traditions as well as the growing understanding via research of how meditation and mindfulness are specific practices that provide wide-reaching positive health outcomes as well as personal benefits. Until proven otherwise, your coloring book is not an autopilot to a mindfulness or meditative experience. In fact, for some it may actually lean toward obsession, reinforcing the need to complete all those designs in all those books you now purchased (aka “one more thing on your already stressful to-do list”).
Coloring is Not Creative Art Expression. While completing a coloring page is undeniably a “feel-good” experience for many, it is obviously a far different experience from authentic creative expression. The benefits of actual art making (using one’s hands to create from imagination) are many and are well-documented, including not only relaxation via stress hormone reduction, but also increased cognitive abilities and attention span, decreases in pain and fatigue perception, improved self-awareness and enhanced sense of quality of life.
Coloring is Not Art Therapy. While just about every self-help, art-based activity roaming Pinterest or Wordpress is proclaimed as a form of personal therapy these days, the actual mental health and wellness benefits of art therapy are not found in the stock and trade of any coloring book. As I have written for the past 25 years, art therapy is not only based in creative visual expression, it is rooted within a relationship. It is the right-hemisphere-to-right-hemisphere, attuned, sensory-based, embodied and reflexive convergence aspects of the art therapy relationship that support art’s reparative powers. Ultimately, humans as a species have always repaired, recovered and healed within relationships, whether through social support or community or through relationships found in the formal services of a mental health or healthcare professional. While I have no doubt that many colorists “feel better” after a session with a coloring book and even a group coloring fest, it is not art therapy by any definition.
So just what are some creative alternatives to your relationship with an adult coloring book? I have written a number of posts about various forms of authentic expression since 2008 in this column, including the following:
Be well and try making some art today,
Cathy A. Malchiodi, PhD
© 2015 Cathy Malchiodi