What’s behind the adult colouring book phenomenon among business leaders?

Adult colouring books Fantastic Cities by Steve McDonald Chronicle Books

Adult colouring books are flying off the shelves, but why? Director delves into their rapidly rising role as anti-stress therapy for the beleaguered business leader

With the soaring popularity of the onesie, emoticons and Angry Birds, it’s tempting to see the rise of adult colouring books – at the time of writing, they make up four of Amazon UK’s top 10 – as part of a broader trend whereby burnt-out grown-ups try to escape back to the blissfully toil-free days of their infancy.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Taking coloured pencil to paper at the end of a hectic day seems to have extraordinary stress-banishing effects – and business leaders are cottoning on. “It’s so therapeutic, especially if you’ve got the same problem circling round your head,” says Shelley Hoppe, chief executive of Southerly Communications, who first got into the activity when a colleague gave her a book as a joke.

Meanwhile, Steve Nice, chief technologist of cloud and data centre business Node4, finds adult colouring books help him focus on different tasks simultaneously. “I generally use them while I am on the phone,” he says. “It’s almost as if my creative brain takes over autonomously while my analytical brain is dealing with the call.” So is it perhaps time we stopped associating doodling in meetings with a lack of engagement?

For Dom Robertson, managing director at RPM, it’s the feeling of artistic achievement that he finds restorative. “They’re satisfying because they make your work look great,” he says. “I was quite dismissive when my mother-in-law gave me a book for Christmas, but I love the distraction. Because of the intricacy of the designs, they force you to focus, which means it’s time out.”

Art therapy, as it’s now been dubbed, isn’t new: psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung was an adherent, advocating colouring-in as a relaxation aid in the early 20th century. The current revival appears to have originated in France, where the Art-thérapie: 100 coloriages anti-stress series have become a phenomenon (3.5 million books were sold there last year).

A boon to mindfulness

The trend has caught on massively in Australia, where Melbourne neuropsychologist Stan Rodski’s Colourtation books have been incorporated into mindfulness and wellness initiatives in such organisations as ANZ Bank, Wesfarmers and Bupa.

One major appeal seems to be the creative escapism involved. A 2014 study from San Francisco State University showed that creative activities outside work help people handle stress and, accordingly, sharpen their work performance. Carole Tonkinson, publisher at Bluebird, Pan Macmillan’s wellness and lifestyle imprint, says: “Colouring is tactile and soothing. It’s creative, but not so challenging that it’s draining.”

Hoppe adds that colouring-in is a major boon to mindfulness.
“I think we’re all constantly stewing about what we did yesterday or what we’re doing next Monday, whereas this anchors you in the present,” she says. In fact, many who partake report going into a kind of trance, similar to that experienced by people who practise meditation.

Clinical psychologist Dr David Holmes believes colouring can, indeed, also be used to shift the mind down a few gears. “Brainwaves form different patterns of electrical activity near the skull which tend to fall into two broad groups,” he says.

“With our workaholic culture, we spend most of our lives in ‘beta mode’, which is when we’re alert, problem-solving, decision-making. By actively altering the preponderance of certain brain patterns, you can shift into ‘alpha mode’, which is more like the state of mind we have as children. Meditation and similar techniques require learning and practice, whereas anyone can just drop into colouring-in.”

Enriched downtime

Andres Rodriguez, founder of the Meditation Room, agrees. “When we do things that are process-driven rather than outcome-driven, it creates what I call ‘analogue moments’,” he says. “They take the mind, body and senses into a deeply settled state, and regularly doing this results in a kind of upgrade of your bandwidth. Your responses and interactions become much more considered and less reactive, dismissive, fearful or anxious.”

In other words, it can have a beneficial effect on management skills, as well as an enriching influence on your downtime. “It’ll lower adrenaline and cortisol production, the breathing will regulate because the repetitive nature arrests momentum – as with stroking a cat – meaning it’ll trigger a brain chemistry that takes people away from a ‘flight or fight’ mentality and into a ‘stay and play’ one,” says Rodriguez. “That, in turn, makes time stop running in emergency mode, and we feel unburdened, unshackled, light and free.”

There’s no shortage of reasons, it seems, to bring a little more colour into our lives. 

Five of the best of the adult colouring books

Adult colouring books: The Little book of Calm Colouring by David Sinden and Victoria KayThe Little Book of Calm Colouring, by David Sinden and Victoria Kay
Pocket-sized colouring book with stunning paper quality and inspirational quotes.

Secret Garden: An inky treasure hunt and colouring book, by Johanna Basford
The book that started the craze has sold over two million copies worldwide since its 2013 release.

Colour Yourself Calm: A mindfulness colouring book, by Tiddy Rowan
Suppress flight-or-fight adrenaline surges with these 30 black-and-white mandalas.

Colourtation Brain Science, by Dr Stan Rodski and Jack Dowling
These abstract designs co-created by a clinical psychologist are a big hit in his native Australia.

Fantastic Cities: A coloring book of amazing places real and imagined, by Steve McDonald
Impressively immersive cityscapes from around the world (see top of page).

Read more about adult colouring books

Learn about the benefits of colouring-in at colourtation.com



About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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