January is the month for fixing things. For some, it’s a body fix — gym memberships are purchased, alarm clocks are set, extra champagne from New Year’s Eve is tossed out. Others set career-oriented goals — following up with job recruiters, making an effort to stay on top of projects, finally asking for that promotion (or at least getting your internship housing paid for over the summer).
But there are other areas of our lives needing to be “fixed” that go unnoticed each year, because they don’t call for extra obligations. We’re conditioned to think that “New Year, New Me” means adding more to our plate — whether that be more veggies, morning spin sessions, a night class called “How to Be Successful Post-Graduation 101” — but sometimes it calls for the opposite: letting ourselves breathe. This year, my New Year’s resolution isn’t to be more organized, more productive, or more focused on school, running, or even my post-graduation plans.
Instead, I’m resolving to relax. It’s easier said than done.
I bet this sounds familiar: finals week, a tiny table at Espresso Royale, laptop opened to a blank document, books piled high on a stool. I’d been staring at the computer screen for about 30 minutes, but my mind wasn’t on the paper I had to write; it was on the to-do list scrolling in the back of my head: finish essays, write cover letters, make flashcards, submit applications! There was so much to do that the bulk of it paralyzed me. I lashed out at my boyfriend when he stopped by to visit, saying he was wasting my time. Couldn’t he see that I didn’t have 20 minutes to talk?
Turns out, I did have time. And so does everyone else, no matter how busy they are (i.e. even those who have infinite to-do lists). Because as much as I think I’m being “productive” and “bettering” myself by taking on a Herculean workload, if all I’m left with is a blank document and an irritated boyfriend, I’ve really accomplished nothing.
So what should I be doing instead of unproductively stressing? Coloring. No, really.
If you haven’t heard of adult coloring books yet, you will soon. Filled with pages of beautifully intricate patterns, books like “Secret Garden” and “Enchanted Forest” by Johanna Basford or Emma Farrarons’ “The Mindfulness Coloring Book: Anti-Stress Art Therapy for Busy People” have topped bestseller lists in the United States. Sales especially skyrocketed over the holidays: Amazon reported to Fortune magazine that out of their top 10 bestselling books in December, five were adult coloring books.
This DIY-art-therapy phenomenon has lead prestigious media outlets from the Atlantic and the New York Times, to NPR and CNN Health, to ask a key question: does it work? Can coloring really relieve stress for adults, or are they just a distraction from our problems? And my own question: is filling in a coloring book really a productive use of college students’ time?
To answer these questions, I sought out Psychology Prof. Nansook Park, director of the Michigan Positive Psychology Center on campus. Most of Park’s work focuses on mindfulness (the act of living in the moment and being open to experience) and its positive impact on individual health, particularly in regards to decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression. At the University, Park regularly teaches a class called “Savoring,” which instructs students to be wholly present in their everyday lives — for example, to truly savor a piece of chocolate, a walk in the Arb or a conversation with roommates.
I asked for Park’s opinion on whether adult coloring books were just a fad or a legitimate mechanism to cope with stress and anxiety. Also, I asked whether or not she saw the coloring trend as a regression to childhood — a potentially serious issue, as students are at a critical stage of becoming independent and learning to face their problems.
“It’s not fair to dismiss coloring as regressing,” Park said, who had observed two University faculty members coloring recently on their staff break. “There are too many studies that support the health benefits of simple tasks like coloring. Finishing a picture gives our brains the chance to zone out, similar to meditation, but it also gives us a sense of accomplishment — there’s color on the page where there wasn’t before.”
This sense of accomplishment — having a picture to show for our task — makes coloring a positive experience, which is why it not only gives people a momentary release from stress, but actually improves our moods.
“People are happier when they have positive experiences, like when they’re creating something or going somewhere,” Park said. “We zone out when we watch TV, but we aren’t necessarily happier when we come back to reality, because we haven’t been active participants in the task.”
Coloring differs importantly from other forms of creative expression, like writing or doodling, because it has a set structure. As the Atlantic put it, “Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause.” In a coloring book, the important decisions of form and layout have already been made for us — our only job is to pick a crayon.
“When we write, we’re forced to go into our heads and potentially face difficult issues,” Park explained. “Coloring is mindless. We aren’t solving our problems, which is why coloring books cannot be used to solve long-term issues such as anxiety or depression.”
“However,” Park continued, “Coloring books are a great tool for short-term stress relief. When you’re overwhelmed by stress to the point of paralysis, taking 20 minutes to color a picture gives your brain a necessary break. Afterwards, you’ll be able to face your problems with fresh eyes.”
Make a resolution to relax, then be more productive as a result. Sounds like a fresh start to me.