Artsy Science: Make Time for Crayons

Artsy ScienceToday’s post is part of a collection of posts on the artistic side of science. Through both art and science, we humans try to make sense of the world around us, and the two fields have a lot more in common than you might expect.

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I don’t usually write about popular trends, but I can’t resist this one. Coloring books for adults have recently topped Amazon’s best sellers list. It’s claimed that coloring provides therapeutic benefits for highly stressed grownups, and supposedly there’s scientific evidence to support that claim.

When it comes to crayons, bigger is not always better.  Oh, who am I kidding?  Everyone loves oversized crayons!
When it comes to crayons, bigger is not always better. Oh, who am I kidding? Everyone loves oversized crayons!

I’ve traced the scientific claim to a paper in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (see links below). The paper focuses on “recovery experiences,” which are experiences that help people recover from stress (especially work-related stress), and evaluated the quality of creative activities as recovery experiences in terms of their effect on overall job performance.

You might think that the best recovery experience would be to relax and unwind. To completely disengage from the world around you. To lie back and do nothing. But that might not be the case.

According to this study, engaging in creative activities tends to result in better overall job performance than just relaxing. This is something of a paradox. Creative activities require concentration. They require the expenditure of mental resources that, logically speaking, you should conserve for work. In many cases, creative activities do not seem like “rest” in any sense of the word.

And yet, this study found that creative activities can boost your overall job performance. The authors of the paper provide several explanations for why this might be. My favorite is that having a sense of control over a work of art can help a highly stressed person regain a sense of control over other aspects of his/her life.

In the context of this study, creative activities need not be traditional art forms like painting or music. Cooking might count as a creative activity. Redecorating your office might count. Even telling jokes counts, according to the authors of this paper. Although adult coloring books are never mentioned specifically, I see no reason why they shouldn’t count as well.

Now you may be thinking all this seems fairly obvious. And it is. Try to remember that the next time you need a recovery experience and have a choice between lounging on the couch watching T.V. or grabbing some crayons and a coloring book.

So what do you do when you need a “recovery experience”?


Benefiting from Creative Activity: The Positive Relationship Between Creative Activity, Recovery Experience, and Performance-Related Outcomes from The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. You may encounter a paywall for this article, but you should at least be able to read the abstract for free.

Make Your Job Feel Less Like Work with 20% Time from Lifehacker.

Break Out Your Crayons from Stories and Soliloquies.

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