In January, Samantha Wuu quit her job in Boston to move home to New Jersey and support her mother through two family illnesses. To take her mind off her worries, she also took up coloring. She very quickly found it hard to stop.
“I was really, really stressed when this was going on,” says the 27-year-old, a teacher and childhood friend. Coloring became a useful distraction, and then a preoccupation: “I would be doing other things, and I’d be like, ‘I can’t wait until I get to do that again.” For a month, she colored every day, at times twice a day.
In a very short time, coloring has proven surprisingly addictive for America’s stressed, anxious, and overworked. Therapeutic without being therapy, meditative without being meditation, creative without being creation, artsy without being art, the supposedly soothing activity has also become a big business—in 2015 alone, US sales of coloring books shot up from 1 to 12 million units.
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It’s hard to overstate the trend: Coloring books are one of the big reasons print had such a strong showing last year in the US. Bookstores and craft stores alike are bursting at the seams with coloring books geared toward the 20 and up, and there are YouTube channels that let people watch other people color and critique coloring books. Coloring is so big, it’s spun off its own bizarre subcultures, like coloring book parties, coloring books that are just swear words, and adult coloring apps. Even colored pencil production is feeling the effects of the craze.
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A sizable number of the best-selling titles have one promise: “relax,” “stress relief,” and “good vibes.” Anecdotally at least, coloring seems to make people feel calmer. But unlike with drugs or exercise, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how.
“People with a lot of anxiety respond really well to coloring books,” says New York-based art therapist Nadia Jenefsky. “There are some choices involved—in terms of choosing what colors you’re going to use and how you’re blending your colors—but there’s also a lot of structure.”
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In a statement, the American Art Therapy Association draws a fine line:
“The American Art Therapy Association supports the use of coloring books for pleasure and self-care, however these uses should not be confused with the delivery of professional art therapy services, during which a client engages with a credentialed art therapist.”
Gloria Webb, a stay-at-home mother in New York City, says she colors because it helps her sleep. She and seven other women, mostly seniors, meet every week in an “adult coloring book club” in Manhattan’s Kips Bay public library.
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Sheerly Avni, a TV writer based in Mexico City, says she’s the perfect audience for a trend like adult coloring: “I haven’t relaxed since 1973,” she jokes. “I was born to be the market demographic for anything new that makes people calm down with them not actually having to work for it.”
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We color to feel like children again, and to flex creative muscles, but as Jenefsky says, the truth is that children are actually so creative that coloring books slow them down. “For children a lot of times coloring books can inhibit their creativity,” she says. Their natural creativity, she says, lends itself better to creating art from scratch.
Burned out adults, on the other hand, can be overwhelmed by a blank page. For them, selecting colors to fill in the lines may be all the creativity they can muster. And that makes sense.
It’s precisely coloring’s noncommittal not-quite-therapy, not-quite-art qualities that make it compelling. The activity takes less energy than jogging or yoga, is easier than picking up knitting, and is more productive than watching House of Cards (or can be done alongside it). Easier than yoga or meditation, it offers low-stake quick-hit escapism wrapped in the faddish trappings of self-medication.
Link to the rest at Quartz