When I was Christmas shopping this year and went to Barnes & Noble looking for a gift, I was overwhelmed by all the coloring books I saw. Since the craze started two years ago, the hype really hasn’t died down; in fact, I would venture to say it’s gotten bigger. Around the same time I was shopping, reports came out suggesting that—for the first time in forever—good news was coming from the print industry. As Fortune reported, print book sales were up 2 percent last year, thanks in large part to—you guessed it—coloring books for adults.
Now groups are forming in living rooms and at local libraries for adults to come together and color. And there are currently five adult coloring books in the top twenty bestselling books on Amazon.com. In January, they held the top ten spots on the New York Times bestseller list for games and activities.
So, why has this childhood pastime become so popular, and what does it say about leisure in our culture today?
I think the first thing it says is that people are finally recognizing the importance of work–life balance. Our age of technology has made us incredibly productive and efficient, and everyone I know is multitasking almost every minute of their lives. We are eager and excited to accomplish more than before and race to fill our schedules with work. But how many of us are burned out?
In an interview with Verily, Brigid Schulte explains what happens in a culture that doesn’t value leisure. She says:
“I think we lose our soul. We’re so busy earning and striving, getting and buying, competing and worrying about our status that we don’t take the time to check in with ourselves and determine what we truly value. You lose the ability to know yourself, and what other task is there in life than to know yourself and to live life by your own compass?”
In my work as a social media editor, it is all too easy for me to constantly be checking my phone for tweets and trends when I should be giving my mind time to unwind, relax, or explore non-work-related thoughts. But even those among us not paid to be online feel the pressures of the overstimulation that seems rampant in our society. The good news is that adding leisure time to your life doesn’t mean taking away from productive hours of work.
In the book Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio explains, “Together with a culture of work there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: People who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport.” Or, in this case, color.
The great thing about coloring books is that they invite you to be an artist for the moment. They are not a hobby so much as an activity. A simple thing you can easily pencil into your busy schedule as you attempt to add more relaxation to your work-filled life. Even if you only allow yourself five minutes of coloring to unwind, you will be doing yourself some good.
For Yahoo Health, Jordan Gaines Lewis reported:
“New research has focused on how creativity, especially in the form of visual art, can improve physical health. In a study of thirty 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.’”
If it isn’t illness but rather the stresses of daily life that drive you to tap in to your creativity, you’re doing yourself a favor. The culture of busyness and productivity isn’t going away anytime soon, but we are slowly learning to strike a balance to become healthier (and with the help of some strategies, less overwhelmed) people. You can’t actually be working every waking minute of your life, and what you choose to do in the spare moments does matter.
Those of us who struggle to put everything down and let our mind wander have to accept that making time for leisure is not the enemy of productivity nor is it selfish. I know it’s hard, but don’t be afraid to put your phone on silent, put on your favorite playlist, and get lost coloring. Once you commit to trying it, your mind will welcome the creative outlet. It is still a somewhat structured activity but is truly leisurely. This little break can greatly increase your quality of life without compromising productivity.
I ended up buying a coloring book for my sister, who is a senior in college. She assures me that it is indeed “therapeutic.” If a college senior has learned to let her mind quietly rest, then you can, too. So return to the lost childhood activity of coloring. Pick a color and stay in the lines (or don’t!). For a growing number of people, it’s proving to be just the thing we need to make our days and weeks more productive and stress-free.