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The Ancient Origins Of Your Obsession With Coloring Books

Coloring books have roots reaching back 1,000 years, and share meditative benefits first discovered by Buddhists.

One thousand years ago, on the stone floors of a monastery in Tibet, a monk hunches on his knees, placing rubies the size of dust motes to draw a delicate line of glowing red sand. It’s punishing but sacred work. Days into the process already, his back and joints ache, yet he has to be careful not to exhale too hard or set his hand in the wrong spot.

He’s drawing an image of an enlightenment, a combination of his inner and outer world, if he could see it through perfect eyes, and it takes every bit of his focus for days, weeks, even months, placing individual grains alongside his brothers to make the vision real. When finished, this dazzling mandala will offer an initiate of the highest tantra yoga practices a focal point for reflection and contemplation—a visualization born from a blitzkrieg rush for spiritual completion, since the Buddhists who practice in this particular tantric branch believe in the radical possibility that you can reach enlightenment in a single lifetime—rather than eons of reincarnation. The intricate mandala may be around all of a week before it’s swept up into a smear of dust and poured into the river as a blessing and a reminder: Don’t be attached; nothing is forever.

Today, on a subway in New York, a sales manager is navigating bumps and elbows as she tries to keep a colored pencil on the paper. She’s just gotten a best-selling adult coloring book on Amazon, and it’s enough to erase away a day of bad news and a train car filled with a mysterious odor.

A thousand years apart and 10 thousand miles away, the monk and the sales manager aren’t really so different. Both are performing rituals that allow them to enter a particular mental state known as "flow."

The Difference Between Flow And Happiness

Not necessarily happy, but certainly not sad. Not satisfied nor longing. Both the monk and the colorer are experiencing a mindlessness born from mindfulness on a task. Flow is a state that—if you believe in the psychological theory—connects the monk to the coloring book aficionado, and the knitter to the glue-gun wielder. It’s a sensation that justifies our cultural obsession with many hobbies for the process rather than the results, reframing crafting as carefully designed behavior, intended to serve as an analgesic for anxiety rather than a means to produce mittens and birdhouses. And at the same time, these crafts can become visual tools for us to see tranquility, like a talisman of a clear mind.

"Not having any distracting thoughts keeps my mind calm," Phuntsok Tsering tells me. Tsering is a monk who’s made sand mandalas for 18 years, and now shares the ritual in the U.S. out of Atlanta's Drepung Loseling at the order of the Dalai Lama—and even appearing on a recent episode of House of Cards. "It’s not exciting joy but an inner peace that I get while making the mandala."

If creating crafts doesn’t bring us joy, why else would we put forth the effort? The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi may have the answer. He’s researched happiness since the 1960s, and you may know him from his TED talk, his documentary, or any number of books. His theory of flow will sound familiar: Someone who is extremely skilled at a task—such as writing, painting, or surgery—can be so focused on it that the minutes bleed into hours. In this state, they can forget about physical pain or personal responsibilities to get a task done at peak efficiency. It’s an appealing idea to any lifehacker, which is why some people even schedule their work day to increase flow.

Many have misconstrued the flow state with happiness itself, which Csikszentmihalyi is quick to correct. "The funny thing about flow is that you’re usually not happy when you’re doing it because you’re too focused on what you’re doing," he says. "You’re happy afterward or [during] pauses in the activity. You say, 'That’s fairly good!' But flow itself is not a situation of happiness. It’s alert engagement with the environment."

Flow is, in essence, work. It’s not bad work, but it’s work all the same, pushing someone to the peak of their cognitive abilities.

The Science Of Microflow

Most crafts don’t ask quite so much of us. Sand mandalas require a year of training to master the technique (It’s another three to learn the significant spiritual theories behind the practice itself). Yet much of that time is spent learning how to construct clean geometric outlines with just a string and chalk. Monks don’t make up their own designs, as mandala patterns are passed down only by saintly level practitioners who’ve experienced a vision. Yet there is a bit of creativity reserved for the creator himself—a lotus might need to be placed in a particular corner and painted in a particular color, but a monk can still choose how many pedals it has.

Even still, once those outlines are completed in any mandala, the cognitive creativity is done. Actually filling in the mandala is basically working on a very physically demanding coloring book for hours on end. Knitting is similar. It can be a challenge to learn a new stitch, for instance, but once set on a pattern, knitting a scarf puts you into a sort of mental cruise control. Like when playing a game of solitaire, you’re thinking—but it’s mindless, pre-patterned thinking with a clear destination.

In these instances, Csikszentmihalyi says that we enter microflow. It’s basically flow light, a version of flow that can be reached with less skill, and less focus. "What microflow does, while I don’t think it provides flow, it prevents boredom on one hand and anxiety on the other," he says. "It’s a palliative: It gets you from dwelling on things that ordinarily make us unhappy. Worried about your job, or your health, or whatever. You don’t have a chance to do that."

Or as Tsering put it to me, echoing Buddhist philosophy rather than pop psychology: "When someone says they’re not happy, it’s because they think something unhappy."

How measurably important is microflow to the human psyche? In 1975, Csikszentmihalyi ran a study that was never published, where 35 students were asked to give up some habit during midterms week. The list included activities such as whistling, humming, and dancing—it could be anything they’d found themselves doing for no real purpose other than doing it. He gave the students his phone number in case there were issues.

Within a day, half of the 35 participants had called him, dropping out of the study. When he asked them why, they said they'd tended to lose focus on other things in their lives. One person cited being unable to remember what they’d read when studying for midterms. Another blamed the study for burning their hands when boiling eggs. Someone walked into a door and broke their glasses.

"Apparently these things, these mindless rituals that require some attention, but not real hard-focused attention, and the freedom to do them are probably a major thing," Csikszentmihalyi says.

Triggering Microflow By Design

What’s remarkable about the resurgence of crafts in today's world is that they are tasks we take on, as Csikszentmihalyi might say, for no real purpose that we can explain. In an industrialized world, knitting your own mittens makes no logical sense. It takes longer and costs more than ordering an alternative from Etsy. When an adult colors inside the lines of a book, they probably won’t hang the results on a wall but allow them to eventually waste away on a shelf among other coloring books. So a pragmatist might ask, why color or knit at all?

If you start looking at the world of crafts through the lens of microflow, you begin to see the tacit goal of achieving microflow is not the result of a craft, but the reason that the craft is practiced in the first place. In some cases, the activity that induces microflow is a seemingly innocuous habit, as Csikszentmihalyi found. In other cases, it becomes something more.

During his life, Mahatma Gandhi was a vocal supporter of the spinning wheel. On one hand, he saw these wheels as a means for India to wean itself from the British Empire’s textile industry, much like the Salt March he organized for people to produce their own salt. On the other, Gandhi practiced spinning himself, carrying a portable wheel of his own design with him on trips. "Spinning is raised to the heights almost of a religion with Gandhi and his followers," Life wrote in 1946. "The spinning wheel is sort of an Ikon to them. Spinning is a cure all, and is spoken of in terms of the highest poetry."

And just as mandalas provide Tantric Buddhists with a vision of the perfect world, so too did the wheel provide a sort of visualization tool for Gandhi’s enlightened Earth. "We cannot visualize nonviolence in the abstract," he once said referring to the wheel. "So we choose an object which can symbolize for us, the formless."

In this sense, today's crafting boom shares convergent evolution with the millennium-old tradition of mandala drawing: Both practices evolved to serve the same human need for a release of consciousness, lest we burn our hands boiling eggs. If Buddhist principles are to be believed, if we embrace the fact that crafts are a lesson unto themselves—and that we paradoxically shouldn’t be attached to the things we painstakingly make—we will eventually be happier for it.

"The real happiness is after finishing the mandala," Tsering says. "It’s great joy." He adds, but "the first time, when you wipe it away, you’ve been doing four to five days of work, eight hours a day. And in one second this beautiful mandala is destroyed. You feel a little sad. Because you realize, I’m attached to this beautiful mandala. You’re seeing that attachment you have, and it’s the cause of your own suffering . . . then slowly, slowly, you become used to that."