Coloring and Drawing Could Help You Boost Your Mood—but Which Is More Effective?

  • José Lourenço, What color should I use?, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

    José Lourenço, What color should I use?, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

In 2015, the mania for adult coloring books was at its peak. It was hard to walk into a bookstore and not find a table piled high with tomes of intricate, ready-to-color mandala designs, city scenes, or floral patterns.

The publishers often seemed to purport that the activity of coloring could be a form of meditation. While many have since deemed the books a passing trend, they’re still easy to find. Curiously, little has been done to scientifically prove whether or not they have any effect on one’s mental health.  

Enter art therapy researchers Jennifer Forkosh and Jennifer E. Drake. The duo had previously conducted art-therapy studies that confirmed the emotional benefits of drawing; they wondered if coloring was a similarly beneficial activity. Turns out, it is.

Drake notes that there have been two studies published in the Journal of American Art Therapy on coloring, but both were focused on how it can be used to alleviate anxiety. Forkosh and Drake developed a new study, published this past June, which compared drawing to coloring in terms of each activity’s effectiveness for mood improvement.

  • Courtesy of Forkosh & Drake.

    Courtesy of Forkosh & Drake.

  • Courtesy of Forkosh & Drake.

    Courtesy of Forkosh & Drake.

In a previous study in 2011, Drake had found that drawing improves mood in the short-term; when participants were asked to think about a sad event they had experienced, the act of drawing was beneficial. She and Forkosh wondered whether this was due to the fact of creating something, or merely because drawing is a distracting activity—and, if the latter, they wondered if a variety of activities would have similar outcomes.

“We originally hypothesized that drawing—a demanding task where you have to plan and organize what you’re going to do—would lead to greater mood improvement than coloring,” Drake explains. “We felt that coloring is more passive; even though you have to plan how you’re going to arrange and color your design, it’s not as involved.”

In the study, 70 participants (undergraduate students aged 18 to 46), were given a series of surveys to rate their mood. After an initial questionnaire, they were asked to think about a sad event they had experienced, and to mentally relive it for three minutes. Following that exercise, they rated their moods again, then were randomly assigned to one of three activities or conditions for a 15-minute session: coloring, drawing a design, or drawing the sad event, which was called “expressing.”

In the coloring group, participants were given a piece of paper with a mandala design to fill in. Those in the drawing group were given similar paper and colored pencils, but asked to create a non-representational design of their own, on a blank sheet. The “expressing” group was provided the same materials as the drawing group, but were specifically directed to draw the thoughts and feelings they linked to the sad event.

After the 15 minutes, participants rated their moods again. “We found that in both cases of coloring and drawing, it was doing something distracting, in coloring or drawing, that led to greater mood improvement,” Drake explains. As previous studies had suggested, the “express” condition saw lower rates of mood improvement.

  • Courtesy of Forkosh & Drake.

    Courtesy of Forkosh & Drake.

Via a questionnaire administered after the sessions, the study also suggested that coloring was more conducive than drawing to the mental state of flow—the concept developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which describes a state where a person finds a balance between their skill level and the challenge of the task at hand. Flow, achieved through a spectrum of activities—from yoga to writing—tends to allow people to stabilize their emotions. “When we’re in states of flow, we lose track of time, we’re totally absorbed or in the zone, almost,” Drake explains.

“Coloring doesn’t have that balance between challenge and skill,” she continues, “but there is a new concept called microflow, which is thought to be a simulation of flow, where you’re experiencing a relaxed state, and it may be that those in the coloring condition were having this experience.”

Drake posits that that both drawing and coloring were effective simply because both are engaging activities. “Both are shifting the participant’s mind away from the negative event they thought of—I think that’s why they both resulted in improved mood,” she says.

And while their hypothesis—that drawing is a more effective distraction than coloring—wasn’t supported, Drake has ideas as to why. “I think it could possibly be due to the fact that we were working with non-artists,” she says. For the majority of individuals in the study, drawing was not an activity they practiced regularly. Among the participants, there were three people who identified as art majors and 23 who said they had taken formal art classes before. “We might have found different results if we were working with artists, who are more used to drawing,” Drake notes, “and coloring might not be as engaging or demanding for them.”

Ultimately, though, the study is a vote of confidence in adult coloring books. In the end, those tomes of complex drawings, waiting to be scribbled and filled with color, aren’t just time-wasters—they can be mood-boosters, too.

—Casey Lesser