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Adult Coloring Books: Silly Trend or Serious Benefits?

Johnna Kaplan

Coloring books for adults are inescapable these days. You’ve probably noticed them for sale everywhere, from the bookstore to the craft store to the drugstore. Their recent rise to ubiquity is underscored by this graph of Google searches for “adult coloring book,” which spiked dramatically in the last year.

According to Nielsen BookScan, 12 million adult coloring books were sold in the U.S. in 2015, and the coloring craze is a major contributor to the recent rise in print book sales. Some of these new, more mature coloring books–which range from intricate and artistic to humorous and edgy–have even popped up on Amazon’s Best Sellers List.

And the obsession seems to be universal. Already huge in Europe and the United States, coloring books are now becoming popular in Asia. Publishers Weekly reported that over 500,000 were sold in a six-month span last year in Taiwan.

If you need more proof that people really love coloring inside the lines, the Facebook group Coloring Books for Adults has over 43,000 members, another called Adult Coloring Worldwide has over 24,000, and there are dozens of smaller groups with narrower focuses like coloring competitions or coloring for people with chronic illnesses. And the trend shows no sign of stagnating – recently, Woman’s Day noted the release of a new product: coloring wine bottle labels.

But is the seemingly sudden proliferation of grown-up coloring books just a fad and a waste of time? Or, could returning to a favorite childhood hobby mean real health benefits? Many adults say there are good reasons to develop a coloring habit, and scientific evidence is beginning to suggest the pastime can help reduce stress, improve mental health, and even treat physical illness.

The Start of the Coloring Craze

Coloring books for grown-ups are not new. Subversive coloring books intended more as political statements than artistic exercises had a moment in the early 1960s. Dover Publications claims to have created the first real “coloring book targeted at an adult audience” in 1970, featuring antique cars.

The next year, they brought out similar books on flowers and the alphabet. And, of course, no one knows for sure how many parents, teachers, and babysitters have appropriated a page from the coloring book of a child in their care to use for their own amusement.

But the current coloring book explosion is widely recognized as something new and noteworthy. Its origins have been traced by the Atlantic to France beginning in 2012 and by the Washington Post to “the work of Scottish author Johanna Basford, whose 2013 title, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book, began burning up bestseller lists.”

Whoever started it, it is generally agreed that, as CNN says, the “first commercially successful adult coloring books were published in 2012 and 2013.”

The Appeal of Coloring Books

Coloring books for the fully grown are often extolled as relaxation aids. Stephanie, an archivist in Boston whose favorite coloring book uses the original illustrations from Alice in Wonderland, also likes books with abstract patterns that put her “in a Zen mode.” “Coloring gives my mind something to focus on when everything is chaotic,” she says. “It kind of zones me out.”

It’s also just good, simple fun. Elain, from British Columbia, Canada, loved to color as a child and grew up to be an art therapist and artist working in pen and ink. “When I add colour,” she says of her own art, “I jokingly say I am ‘colouring’ it in.” She was recently given a Doctor Who coloring book, and says, “I loved it. I find it brainless, relaxing and fun and I can enjoy someone else’s graphics for a change.” She has already purchased another coloring book, this one with a travel theme.

And although some see coloring books as a solitary, introspective activity, others are using their coloring to connect on social media. The coloring book boom coincided with the massive growth of Instagram, and it’s no surprise that fans of the visually-driven social media platform are now sharing their coloring results as well as their photography.

The Instagram account of Adult Coloring Book (@adultcoloringapp), one of many apps that let people personalize pre-made designs without pencils or paper, has over 33,000 followers. Hundreds of thousands of people have submitted their own creations to be featured and have shared their coloring, both digital and old-school, through hashtags like #AdultColoring and #ColorTherapy.

The coloring book resurgence is part of a larger trend of adults returning to the experiences they first enjoyed as children. This pattern extends beyond books to adult summer camps and even adult preschool classes, complete with naps and crafts.

Mental and Physical Health Benefits

The health benefits of coloring books have not been studied extensively (yet), but the effect of coloring on the brain has been likened to that of other, more established therapies. Studies have shown that art therapy offers measurable benefits for cancer patients as well as those struggling with depression, PTSD, and other diagnosed mental health conditions.

Some therapists argue that coloring books, with their precise guidelines, are not a serious art therapy equivalent; still, they say, using the books can help an anxious or distracted person relax and focus. Other experts believe that coloring is similar to meditation and other mindfulness practices, and that coloring, like yoga, can help practitioners feel mentally and physically calm.

Coloring books have also been touted as a way to improve fine motor skills, stimulate different parts of the brain, and deal with both mental and physical pain.

So, if you’ve been eyeing the growing stacks of coloring books at Barnes & Noble or Target but feeling silly about picking one up, don’t worry. They’re worth trying out if you want to unwind or just add a little color to your day. Then again, if the last thing you want is to be reminded of first grade, there’s no reason you have to jump on the coloring bandwagon merely because it’s so popular at the moment.

Although the benefits of coloring books may be real, they can also be reaped by partaking in other leisure activities or forms of therapy. As your parents may have told you many decades ago, there’s nothing wrong with preferring to color outside the lines.

Ready to color? Get started by printing out a few pages from our coloring book Life’s Moments.

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