The Zen of Adult Coloring Books


I have never changed my mind about anything as quickly or completely as I changed my mind about adult coloring books. I found the trend mostly baffling and maybe a little dumb. But I saw some in a bookstore the other day and I immediately said to my friend, “Well, I’m not leaving here without one of these.”

And indeed, reader, I did not.

Let me clarify: When I say “adult coloring book,” I’m referring to a specific subset thereof. I don’t mean the Benedict-Cumberbatch-is-your-boyfriend coloring books or novelty coloring books based on beloved TV shows. These are silly and whimsical, and—while I am all for silly and whimsical, let’s just be clear about that—they don’t seem like they would actually be that fun to color? I mean, even if you make Barnabus Crumplecake into an alien and color his skin with polka dots or whatever, you’re still just filling in a big human head over and over. (I’m sorry, Benny, I like you and your big head. Really.)

No, I am only interested in patterns. Like these ones. Or these ones. These ones in the shapes of animals are acceptable only because the animals are made of patterns.

Several trend pieces about adult coloring books lump them in with other “childish” activities that grown-ups are apparently engaging in to regress back to their simpler youth, like adult preschool and adult summer camp. But I think they fit better into the trend of meditation and mindfulness that’s been going for some time now, one response among many to the high levels of stress many adults are living with.

Another page from the author’s coloring
book (Julie Beck / The Atlantic)

In the admittedly brief time that I have had this coloring book, it has filled a particular activity niche for me, which is “something to do with my hands while I watch Netflix.” Other activities in this niche include: knitting, painting my nails, texting, putting candy in my mouth. End of list.

Why do I need to do two things at once? Why can’t I just sit quietly and enjoy a TV show? In part, it’s because I feel a little less lazy if I’m making something while I wile away the hours with Friday Night Lights. But also, I’m watching TV in the first place to relax, to quiet my mind, and often my mind is loud enough that it shouts over Coach Taylor. I really do think that a lifetime of multitasking has left me occasionally incapable of subduing the entirety of my mind with one activity. If the front of my mind is occupied by the show, and the back is focused on picking colors and staying in the lines, there’s not room for much else. It’s a sort of mindfulness that’s more like mind-fullness.

There are plenty of studies on the effectiveness of art therapy in reducing stress, and coloring seems to offer some similar benefits, as William Brennan wrote in this magazine when he noted the coloring books’ particular popularity in France. And doodling is a way for people to organize their thoughts, and focus.

Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause. It’s easier in the way that ordering from a restaurant with a small menu is easier than deciding what you want at Denny’s, where you could eat almost anything. This is the paradox of choice, and it’s been well-studied—too many options is overwhelming. But with coloring, you know what you’re working with. You just choose how to fill it in. I think this is why coloring as a soothing activity feels so similar to painting my nails. I can get intricate with my tiny nail art brushes, but I still have a limited canvas, maybe a square centimeter or so, and I have the colors of polish that I have.

So the polish and the coloring both involve repetitive motion and limited space in which to work, creating a locus point around which thoughts can revolve. And here’s where the patterns are important (have I mentioned I like the patterns?), because I think there’s a comfort in the concentration detail demands, something that coloring in the vast expanse of Butterbeer Cornichon’s head doesn’t offer.

The patterns also remind me of labyrinths, which some people use as a sort of therapy—a calming walk through a winding path. (Labyrinths aren’t mazes; there are no dead ends, and it’s easy enough to get in and out.) Coloring in a pattern is a lot like walking a paper labyrinth. There’s nothing to trap you, there’s nothing to solve. You just wander down the path until you’re done. It feels simultaneously like repetition and progression.

It takes a good while to color one of these things in completely—a few hours, I’d say—and there’s something very satisfying about watching the color slowly spread across the page, about seeing your thought and effort create a tangible, pretty thing at a reasonable, predictable pace. This rarely happens in life. (One of my most charming or insufferable qualities is that I make everything into a metaphor for life.)

I haven’t become a hardcore colorer or anything. I’m sure my interest in this hobby will wax and wane with my whims, just as it does with knitting and nail-painting and cooking things that aren’t quesadillas. But as someone who can’t sit and breathe deeply and try to calm my thoughts for even 30 seconds without getting itchy all over, it’s nice to have something other than meditation that still feels meditative. To sit and follow the lines to an end that’s within sight.

Author: Julie Beck
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