Can you really colour yourself content?

As mindfulness colouring books dominate shop shelves, we look at the wellbeing benefits of this new take on child’s play

Colouring in has been a childhood pastime for centuries, but it has now become a veritable adult phenomenon, with booksellers’ shelves groaning under the weight of black and white pages awaiting carefully coloured shading. ‘Phenomenon’ is not too exaggerated a word. In March 2015, Harper Lee’s hugely anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was knocked off Amazon’s best selling spot by adult colouring book Secret Garden. In August, sales for adult colouring books grew by 20 per cent, with Secret Garden selling 36,500 copies in a single week.

What’s the appeal? We live in a super-connected world of fast facts and constant communication; the simple pleasure of colouring in seems to offer a kind of digital detox – not to mention a hearty dose of nostalgia. The practice has caught the attention of mental health practitioners and therapists alike, and many books on offer include the word ‘mindfulness’ on their vibrant covers.

Colouring fans have been quick to extol its benefits, citing relaxation, improved sleep and a greater ability to deal with stress as the chief advantages. Numerous studies, including research by Dr Robert Epstein, show that creative activities have multiple wellbeing benefits, while many therapists say that active meditation focusing on simple, repetitive tasks promotes concentration, replacing negative thoughts and creating a state of peace.

But is it ‘mindfulness’, as so many publishing houses would have us believe?

“There is certainly an overlap between colouring in and mindfulness,” says Alexa Frey, co-founder of The Mindfulness Project. “When you’re colouring in, you really pay close attention to it. Immersing yourself in the practice means you become very present, so you’re paying attention with intention, which is a large part of mindfulness.

“However, authentic mindfulness practice means spending a lot of time paying attention to what happens in your body and observing your thoughts. It is also cultivating acceptance, kindness and curiosity towards oneself and life in general. Unfortunately this is something you do not learn by colouring in a book. If you really want to explore mindfulness and all its benefits, consider taking a course, downloading an app or at least reading up on it.”

As Frey suggests, ‘mindfulness colouring in’ might be something of a buzz phrase. But for those looking for a peaceful analogue activity, all that really matters is the buzz of staying inside the lines.

Illustration by Brett Wilkinson