Elisabeth Briggs finds calm in clicking small, interlocking bricks together and turning piles of multicoloured plastic into something recognisable.
Sometimes she has a beer while playing with Lego bricks — at 37, she's allowed — or watches TV. But she keeps the instructions close by, following them to the block.
For Briggs, this ritual has become a kind of guided meditation with a tangible reward at the end: a big city skyline, perhaps, or an iconic building she can display in her office. She picked up her first Lego building set, a 321-piece copy of the Eiffel Tower, after a trip to Paris and now has nearly three dozen kits that mirror her travels, including Buckingham Palace, the Louvre and the Golden Gate Bridge.
"It's fun to zone out and follow someone else's instructions," said Briggs, a math teacher at Olympic College near Seattle. "It wasn't until I got older — and had a job and more money — that I saw value in that."
Lego, the world's largest and most profitable toymaker, is zeroing in on a growing demographic: stressed-out adults.
The 87-year-old Danish company increasingly bills its brightly coloured bricks as a way to drown out the noise of the day and perhaps achieve a measure of mindfulness.
The company's newest kits — which include the Central Perk cafe from the sitcom "Friends" and a vintage 1989 Bat mobile — tap into Gen X nostalgia, while its Ideas and Forma lines are being targeted to adults who want to occupy their hands but keep their minds loosely engaged.
Adults have become a coveted market for toymakers confronting increased competition and waning sales growth, and it doesn't hurt that they're more likely to drop $800 on a 7,541-piece Star Wars Millennium Falcon set or $400 for the Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle on Briggs's wish list.
"Adults with high-pressured jobs are telling us they're using Lego to disconnect from the mania of the day," said Genevieve Capa Cruz, Lego's audience marketing strategist. "They're looking for a relaxing, calming experience — and they like instructions because that's what helps them be in the zone."
The company spent the past five years revamping instruction manuals to make kits foolproof for frazzled adults, she said. Last year, Lego introduced a line of koi fish and shark models with soothing movements to appeal to builders in search of a "joyful creative challenge."
Lego's appeal, of course, has long spanned generations. Adult fans of Lego — known colloquially as AFOLs — have inspired dozens of Facebook and Reddit groups and at least one "blocumentary." A new book aims to teach older users how to use the bricks as a form of stress relief, not to create complicated models but to simply revel in the process.
And a competition show, LEGO Masters, pits adult builders against one another. (Think "The Great British Bake Off," for Lego.)
But the toy giant is increasingly looking beyond die-hard hobbyists to court the casual builder in search of modern-day tranquillity. "Need an escape?" asked a recent Lego ad on Instagram. "Building with Lego bricks reduces stress and improves your well-being. It's zen, in the shape of a brick."
Mindfulness is a meditative practice rooted in ancient Buddhism and Hinduism that focuses on the present without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. It has been shown to alleviate stress and anxiety, improve sleep and even lower blood pressure.
In recent years, mindfulness has become a mainstream buzzword, with corporations such as Apple, Nike and HBO adding meditation rooms for employees, and apps such as Headspace and Calm promising to help the masses find peace. And Lego is hardly alone in latching on to it as a selling point: Companies now offer "mindful knitting" workshops, while a growing roster of books promises mindfulness through colouring, crosswords and crafting.
Any repetitive activity — embroidering, sweeping or, yes, clicking together Lego bricks — can help strike the right balance between mental engagement and relaxation, says Carrie Barron, director of creativity for resilience at the University of Texas at Austin's Dell Medical School. "To focus singularly on a task is a form of mindfulness."
And, she added, Lego's instruction booklets serve an important role, too: "We like to have structure and a clear path. The idea that 'if you follow this, you'll achieve that,' is very appealing."
"The point is to free your mind"
Abbie Headon hadn't touched a Lego for a good 20 years when the Danish toy giant called with an assignment: Write a book for stressed-out adults, like her, who hadn't played with the blocks in decades. She bought a small bag of pieces and got to work.
"The point is to free your mind of other distractions and focus on play, even if you just have a handful of pieces," said Headon, 44, who is based in England.
Her 160-page book, "Build Yourself Happy: The Joy of Lego Play," was released in the United States last month. Chapters such as "Be a Child Again" and "Builds to Help You Sleep" implore adults to play in new ways: Build something with your eyes closed. Create a rainbow. Build the tallest tower you can. There are also practical considerations: A chapter on "the life-changing magic of tidying your Lego bricks" offers suggestions on sorting and storage.
"The fun isn't just, I'm going to build this and it's going to be perfect," Headon said. "That's one of the great things about Lego: There's no risk. You can always just take it apart and start again."
These days Headon keeps a cardboard box of Lego pieces on her desk. They're therapeutic, she says, even if she's not actively playing with them.
"I like to have something in my hand when I'm thinking, so I'll grab a few Lego pieces and click them together and apart," she said. "It's very satisfying."
Five adult Lego sets we want now
1. Central Perk
3. Ford Mustang
4. Star wars Imperial Star Destroyer
5. The Diner