Why Adults Can’t Get Enough of Coloring Books

June 17, 2016

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In 2013, Secret Garden, an adult coloring book created by U.K.-based illustrator and self-proclaimed “ink evangelist” Johanna Basford, hit the shelves.

I recently spoke with Basford about what inspired her to create coloring books for adults, and why she believes they struck a chord with grown-ups. “I created my first coloring book long before they became the trend, so I had the advantage of blissful isolation,” she says. “I wasn’t jumping on a bandwagon or trying to have some big commercial success; I was just making a book that I loved and hoping that a few other people might feel the same and buy it. That sounds naive, but I genuinely think that when you make something with a pure intention like that, it shines through and people can sense the honesty in a project. Every book I make has that basic wish as its core — to make something beautiful and share it with the world. I only work on projects that make me happy and each drawing is a little labor of love. I think it is that which sets my books apart.”  

And clearly, many people feel the same way: The 96-page book, which includes a storyline, is available in 14 different languages and has sold more than two million copies.

Now, according to Quartz, more than 2,000 adult coloring books are on the market, and they continue to fly off shelves and into the hands of grown-ups. In fact, last year, adult coloring books accounted for three of the Top 10 best-selling books on Amazon.

Public libraries have rolled out the welcome mats to “colorists,” inviting people to get together and participate in coloring clubs as a form of relaxation. A quick search on the New York Public Library’s website found more than 100 adult coloring events on the calendar.

Even pop sensation Justin Bieber praises the pastime on Instagram, telling his 69 million followers he “actually sat down for 30 minutes” to work on a coloring book page. “I can never sit down for that long so it’s an accomplishment,” he writes.

So, what is it about adult coloring books that’s hooking people?

They bring us back.
“Coloring reminds us of our youth and possibly a simpler time in life, which in turn allows us to possibly reevaluate our concerns of the moment and focus on the goals and desires we have for ourselves,” says Elissa Jacobs, MA, ATR-BC, a creative art therapist at Connecticut’s Mt. Sinai Hospital’s St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center.

Basford echoes that sentiment. ”There’s definitely a good dollop of nostalgia to it,” she says. “Chances are, last time you sat down with a coloring book you didn’t have a scary boss, mortgage worries, or concerns about the economic crisis. Coloring books are a wonderful way to transport you back to your carefree days and remind you of a time when life was simpler.”

They give us a break from screen time.
And then there’s the unplugged aspect. “We spend so much of our lives glued to screens; the opportunity to unplug and engage in something real … without the ping of an email or a Facebook alert to interrupt your flow is so rare,” Basford says. “Spending a little time on a creative practice is a great way to unwind and zone out after a hectic day. Picking up a pencil or pen and losing yourself in an illustration is so much more relaxing than staring at a TV.”

They give us a new way to connect with others.
Brian Downing, a retired police sergeant in New Jersey, rediscovered his love of coloring books thanks to one of his two young daughters. While at restaurants that provided coloring pages and crayons to kids, Downing would take the lead to show his daughter — who was too young at the time to fully understand the process — what to do. Soon, Downing tells me, coloring books became “as integral a part of the diaper bag as the actual diapers,” and after he took as much of an interest in his girls’ Captain America coloring books as his daughters did, his wife bought him some adult coloring books of his own. “There is a lot to be said for spending quality quiet time with your kids and significant other,” he says. “Actually, I think we are going to give out coloring books to all the members of my local motorcycle club chapter … as a way to decompress.”

Whether you’re connecting with your kids, your friends, or your motorcycle club, there’s certainly no lack of unique coloring books to choose from. Themes run the gamut from flowers and patterns for the traditionalists; to Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones for diehard fans; to Bill Murray and Kim Kardashian for pop culture enthusiasts.

They help us de-stress.
Not only does coloring remind us of those simpler times, but it also helps us battle the stress that comes from our more complex adult lives. According to Jacobs, “Coloring can help to reduce anxiety, stop the persistence of ruminating thoughts, and allow adults to tap into their creative side[s], which may foster new ways of thinking and seeing the world around them.”

That’s certainly the case for Emmy-award-winning Fox News producer and author of Listful Thinking Paula Rizzo, who got into adult coloring books while recovering from an appendix rupture. “I found [coloring] took my mind off of the pain and how sad I was feeling about not being able to work and be productive,” she says. Though she doesn’t have as much time to color now that she’s back at work, it’s still a go-to when she needs to decompress. “I find that it just lets me detach from all the buzzing going on in my head,” she says. “I get in the zone and focus on picking beautiful combinations of colors instead of running through my to-do list in my head. I find it very relaxing and a great way to just focus on just one thing. Even though I try to be very disciplined and not multitask — it happens. But coloring forces you to only work on that one page. You can’t also be checking your phone while you’re coloring in that butterfly or building.”

And there’s a real, scientific reason Rizzo experienced such benefits from coloring. “The creative process engages several areas of the mind that can trigger the release of endorphins, which produce positive feelings,” Dr. Ben Michaelis, PhD, evolutionary clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing, tells me. And, “there is evidence that the repetitive action of coloring has a calming effect on the [brain’s] amygdala, which processes emotions and stress. The beauty of coloring is that it can induce a meditative state, which means that the more you do it (within reason), the better it is for you.”

Regardless of why you pick up an adult coloring book, my guess is you won’t regret it. And for the perfectionists out there, Basford has one more thing to say: “For those who worry about going over the lines — don’t! I do it all the time.”

Jenny Powers is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.