A few months ago, I caved: I bought myself a coloring book. And maybe you did, too, or perhaps you received one as a gift for the holidays. According to a recent Fortune article, adult coloring books are one of the biggest contributors to this year’s boost in print-book sales. With over 11,000 search results total, five of Amazon’s current top 15 best-selling books are coloring books.
A few nights a week, I look forward to curling up on the couch with my ever-growing collection of colored pencils, tuning in to the latest episode of Serial, and scribbling away at mandalas and Harry Potters — but I still find the trend strange. I’ve always had a penchant for making new things from scratch — painting, knitting, writing, drawing, baking. But with my coloring book, I’m not really creating anything. The designs are already on the page — I’m just filling in the white spots. And yet the activity is just as soothing to my mind as my more traditionally “creative” hobbies. So what is the psychological draw of a task that feels creative, but doesn’t actually involve creating anything new?
In part, it’s a way for people who have never felt very artsy to literally add some more color into their lives. In a 2012 survey sponsored by Adobe, only one in four respondents reported feeling that they were “living up to their creative potential,” while 52 percent of Americans surveyed described themselves as creative — more than any other nationality. As psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, co-author of the new book Wired to Create, phrased it, “It can provide people with a way to flex their creativity.” My artsy cousin Leanne has thoughtful insight on this. Compared to coloring, “finishing a drawing or well thought-out painting is much more satisfying in the end,” she says. “But I know how calming and rewarding it is, so I am a fan of adult coloring books because this popular fad is adding art into people’s lives.”
Indeed, many of my friends and family members sharing their new coloring loot on social media over the past few weeks told me that they are not the types of people who would typically consider themselves artistic, nor did they feel they had adequate time in their daily lives for lengthy creative pursuits. Coloring books, they agreed, are a convenient way to escape into their imaginations for just a few minutes or hours a day, time-permitting.
Whether you would consider yourself artistic or not, research points to the importance of incorporating a little bit of creativity in our daily lives. In one study, Yale researcher Zorana Ivcevic examined traits associated with “everyday creativity” – how we express ourselves in everyday situations, including our personal style and devising ways to cope with daily challenges. Those who ranked highly in having an overall “creative lifestyle” tended to be more conscientious, as well as more likely to seek out personal growth. Yet more new research has focused on how creativity, especially in the form of visual art, can improve physical health. In a study of 30 women with disabling chronic illness, those who had taken up art described the hobby as “cathartic,” distracting their thoughts away from their pain and promoting feelings of “flow and spontaneity.” Research also suggests that engaging patients with art can shorten the length of hospital stays by reducing stress and anxiety.
Of course, coloring within the lines compared to, say, painting a blank canvas is mostly simple decision-making — choosing which color goes best where, with relatively little skill involved. Our prefrontal cortex is responsible for coordinating thousands of decisions each day, from which socks we should wear to life-altering relationship and career choices. As an unconscious response to this so-called daily “decision fatigue,” making a series of small, inconsequential decisions (teal or mahogany for this squiggly line?) may give us a refreshing sense of self-control after a long day of big, important ones.