If you haven’t seen the huge number of adult colouring books filling the shelves of bookshops in every major station and high street in the country, you’ve probably been living under a rock for the past year. Where once colouring books were to be found at the back of bookshops in the children’s section,  next to the wax crayons, now they’re displayed in premium position at the front of the shop – and the reason is that they’re selling – in bucket loads. 

The craze appears to have started when Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford published her first adult colouring book, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt in 2013. At the time a colouring book aimed at grown-ups seemed like a niche idea, but somehow it struck a chord with modern society. Secret Garden has sold over a million copies, been published in 14 languages, and continues to dominate bestseller lists – but now it has plenty of competition. There are books of maps to colour in, intricate mandalas (circles with repeated patterns) and comic book scenes. There’s even a Benedict Cumberbatch colouring book!  

Of course, there are now plenty of Christian-themed colouring books too. But what is it that has got adults reaching for the colouring pencils, and is the pastime something that could be useful for Christians?  

Slowing down  

‘Therapy’, ‘calm’ and ‘mindfulness’ are words that are often bandied about in connection with adult colouring books, including in the titles of the books themselves. The idea is that colouring in helps people to cope with their otherwise busy and stressful lives. If that is true, it would fit in with the wider trend of slowing down and simplifying that can be seen in the resurgence of handicrafts such as knitting and the ‘slow food’ movement – a reaction to our fast-paced lives and our constant technological overstimulation. But do these quasi-medical claims about colouring hold water?

It’s certainly true that art therapy has real benefits for mental health. A 2014 study found that people who undertook creative activities in their spare time not only recovered better from the stress of work, they even performed better at work. Creating works of art have also been shown  to help with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even dementia. But the problem is, colouring in a picture that someone else has drawn isn’t really art. Donna Betts, president of the board of the American Art Therapy Association said, ‘It’s like the difference between listening to music versus learning how to play an instrument. Listening to music is something easy that everyone can do, but playing an instrument is a whole other skillset.’

So colouring books aren’t strictly art therapy, but that’s not to say that this kind of ‘creativity-lite’ doesn’t have its own benefits. Colouring in engages both halves of the brain, the side responsible for fine motor skills and the side that deals with colour, imagery and emotion – and this kind of dual stimulation is good for our stress levels. The repetitive nature of colouring can reduce the heart rate, while the discipline of staying between  

What is it that has got adults reaching for the colouring pencils? 

the lines, and the need to make tiny decisions about what colour to use next, keep the mind just occupied enough to prevent anxious thoughts from swirling around, without the activity being demanding enough to be tiring or stressful itself.  Members of the charity Headway sometimes use colouring therapy to help people who are recovering from brain injury, who may struggle with concentration and focus. And of course, a Christian colourist might find that this kind of mental state helps them to meditate on the words of scripture they’re colouring in, without their mind drifting away to the concerns of the day.

The Peter Pan generation

But is all this talk about the mental benefits of colouring just a screen to cover our embarrassment at taking up a childhood pastime that we feel we ought to have grown out of? Do we talk about practising mindfulness and colour therapy when what we’re actually doing is just… well… colouring in pictures?

The apostle Paul said ‘when I became a man, I put away childish things’ (1 Corinthians 13:11, NKJV) but the current generation of 20 and 30-somethings, known as Generation Y, sometimes seem determined never to put their childhoods behind them. The American sociologist Kathleen Shaputis described us as the ‘Peter Pan’ generation, a group determined never to grow up.   

Partly that’s because of economic circumstances – reaching adulthood in the time of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression has encouraged a lot of young people to stay in education longer, and once they finally have to enter the job market, there’s not much there for them. This means that today’s 30-year-old is far less likely than their parents were to be able to tick off the list of spouse, kids, career, house and car – traditional indicators of adulthood.

But it’s not just economics. Many Generation Y-ers actively resist growing up. ‘To adult’ has become a verb, and it’s something only other (older) people do naturally, something you should get a special prize for attempting, like a particularly hard task in school. Google ‘adulting’ and you’ll find a string of amusing memes saying things like ‘I tried adulting once; it was terrible’ and ‘I can’t adult today. Please don’t make me adult’. There are even stickers you can buy to reward yourself when you achieve grown-up tasks like putting the laundry away and cooking a meal. Significantly, it’s Generation Ywho are the biggest consumers of books these days, having recently overtaken Generation X. They drive trends in entertainment. Blockbuster films based on comic book superheroes dominate cinemas. The majority of ‘young adult’ (teenage) fiction is actually bought by grown-ups.  And then there are onesies, which, let’s face it, are basically babygros for adults.

Creating something praiseworthy

So is indulging in colouring books as an adult something to be ashamed of? While I was researching this article I decided to do some colouring in public, to see what kind of reaction it would get, and gauge whether there is any stigma attached to it. I took out my felt tips in a busy coffee shop full of strangers, and in a waiting room. In both cases, my activity excited no comment whatsoever. Not even from the waitress, when she had to avoid the open book to put my coffee down. I wonder if people deliberately didn’t say anything because they thought colouring in butterflies was an embarrassing activity for a grown woman to be undertaking. I certainly felt a bit embarrassed.  

I also didn’t feel particularly relaxed or mindful when I was colouring, either in public or in private. Although there was something satisfying about bringing colour to a black-and-white page, my  mind kept wandering to other things that I ought to be doing. And I kept forgetting all about the Bible verse that was printed on the page I was filling in.

So colouring isn’t for me – but other people’s experiences can be very different (read Luke Maxted’s account on the previous page). A quick poll of my friends found that many of them have tried adult colouring in. Some found it very calming, a useful distraction from worries, and even a chance to meditate on the things of God. Others just found that they enjoyed colouring in, or that it was ‘fun’, without having any specific therapeutic benefits. And what’s wrong with that?

Philippians 4:8 says ‘whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things’. Coloured-in pictures are certainly lovely, when done with care and attention, and with a few exceptions (such as the swear word colouring books, of which there are more than you would believe), they would seem to be pure, too.

When it comes to colouring books that contain verses of scripture and that are deliberately designed to foster appreciation of God’s creation, you could argue that they are also admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Yes, there are more productive things you could do with your time – but there are far worse things you could do too. When colouring in has a calming effect it is an example of self-soothing, which is what a small child achieves by sucking their thumb or stroking a familiar blanket or toy. We adults who would never dream of such childish behaviour often reach for a large glass of wine or a bar of chocolate in order to soothe ourselves instead – coping methods that can be far more harmful in the long term than a few multicoloured ink smudges on our fingers. Even if the trend for  ‘grown-up’ colouring books is part of a wider phenomenon of emotionally withdrawing from adulthood, that’s not necessarily a reason to dismiss them. Colouring in is not going to make a tough economic climate any worse, and it doesn’t seem likely that it will stand in the way of acquiring those talismans of adulthood – a job, a house, a spouse (unless the spouse has a vehement objection to colouring books).  

The therapeutic benefits, while not as dramatic as the booksellers would like us to believe, are real, at least for some people. Not everyone is cut out to make great art, or even has the desire to, but anyone can create something beautiful just by patiently colouring between the lines. And surely there is some value in creating something beautiful for its own sake, even if you’re not necessarily going to stick it to your fridge? In a society where innocence is not prized, the new colouring trend is an innocent pastime that’s open to everyone, regardless of age, sex or economic indicators. So why not climb into your onesie (or not) and get colouring?

Karen Murdarasi is a freelance journalist