Colouring for adults
What little kid doesn’t love colouring. But somewhere between thinking their parents are the coolest humans in the multiverse, and getting their PhD in tweenage eye-rolling, small humans abandon this simple joy in favour of texting, TV and TikTok (it’s not just a biscuit, parents). In recent years, though, there’s been a surge in the popularity of colouring books aimed at adults, with bookstores offering a bevy of designs from cute-as flowers and animals, to the ubiquitous Game of Thrones and even cuss words. One theme that’s proven incredibly popular is the mandala: a circular motif comprised of repeating colours, shapes and patterns that radiate out from the centre. Mandalas have been used as spiritual and ritual tools across human history. They appear throughout nature, across all cultures, and are represented in centuries of human art, architecture, and religion. But what’s their role in positive psychology, and do mandala colouring books have scientific merit as a tool for promoting health and wellbeing?
Left: Olena Ivanova on Unsplash; Centre top: Lanty on Unsplash;
Centre bottom: Amisha Nakhwa on Unsplash; Right: Fabio Santaniello Bruun on Unsplash
Mandalas as a tool in psychotherapy
The psychological street cred of mandalas is pretty solid. Mandalas were first used as a therapeutic tool by Carl Jung in 1916, who found they had a calming effect on patients. Modern research into the benefits of mandala colouring is in its infancy, but there’s some solid evidence that 20 minutes of mandala colouring can improve mood and reduce anxiety, and emerging evidence it may also reduce depression, aid healing from trauma, and promote mindfulness, focused attention, problem solving and flow. In fact, there may be something inherently beneficial about drawing and colouring mandalas over other designs (even more than cuss words? you ask). Yes. In one study, people who coloured a pre-drawn mandala experienced greater reductions in anxiety than those who coloured a plaid design of similar size and complexity, or those who coloured free-form on a blank sheet of paper. When using colouring as an anxiety aid, though, some research suggests colouring immediately before or after a stressful activity for the best results; for instance, students anxious about an exam might colour just before sitting the test, or people afraid of flying might colour before or during their flight.
What’s so special about mandalas?
Circles vs squares
The word mandala in Sanskrit means ‘magic circle’ or ‘centre’, and much of the mandala’s efficacy is thought to come from its circular shape. Shape is an ‘active ingredient’ in enhancing mood, with people asked to draw and colour within a circle experiencing bigger reductions in negative affect than those asked to draw or colour within a square. Different line types also have different ‘emotional qualities’, with sharp angles and abrupt jagged lines linked to intense and less-pleasant emotions such as hostility, frustration, anger and pain. Lines that are fluid and curved, like those found in mandala colouring designs, promote positive affect, calm, and are seen as having innate beauty.
Some art therapists and clinical psychologists think that the concentration and fine motor skills required for colouring may lower amygdala activity (the emotional ‘fight or flight’ part of the brain) and, subsequently, stress levels. No studies have directly investigated this link, but there is some evidence that actively creating artwork promotes psychological resilience through resistance to stress. On the other hand, it may be that colouring complex designs like mandalas simply requires focused attention, encouraging participants to engage in an enjoyable activity rather than in worries or negative thoughts.
Mandala colouring may promote the trance-like state that positive psychologists call ‘flow’. Flow comes from deep engagement with a task, and being wholly focused on the present moment. One study recently found that mandala colouring significantly improved the flow state, which in turn has a raft of benefits such as positive mood, better coping and improved performance. Flow is a huge topic in its own right, but for those interested, the following video gives an introduction to flow so you can see how it might eventuate from a simple activity like colouring. (Or from playing truly bad air piano, if you watch the female character in the blue shirt.)
While most books on the market tout ‘mindfulness’ as a universal benefit of mandala colouring, there’s actually little empirical research into whether or not mindfulness is a measurable factor or outcome of colouring. A couple of studies (here and here) found no difference in mindfulness between those asked to colour mandala designs or colour free-hand; while one very recent randomised controlled trial found that mandala colouring increased mindfulness of bodily sensations but not mindfulness of thoughts and emotions. Some critics suggest colouring actually promotes ‘mindlessness’ in which people simply distract themselves from whatever is on their mind. In reality, more research is needed before the makers of adult colouring books can legitimately claim that mandala colouring promotes mindfulness.
Mandala colouring: an activity for everyone
The best thing about mandala colouring is that it requires no special skills or equipment, and anyone who can hold a crayon, Texta, or pencil can do it. For those new to the arts, colouring is a non-intimidating way to express yourself creatively, with designs freely available on the internet as well as in bound books. And if you get bored and want a bigger challenge, follow in Jung’s shoes and begin creating your own mandalas that more intimately express your inner thoughts and feelings. Better yet, use your handmade designs as presents, gift cards, or wrapping paper and get even more psychological benefits from sharing your creations with others. The tutorial and resources below offer some great tips for how to get started.