The quiet thrill of keeping a secret

January 2, 2024

If your partner gets down on one knee to propose, or you get a call with the job offer you’ve been coveting, your inclination might be to shout it from the rooftops. But new research suggests that keeping positive secrets to yourself can have an “energizing” effect, reports The New York Times.

The study, published in the November issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, included five experiments with a total of 2,800 participants between the ages of 18 and 78.

In one experiment, participants were given a list of 38 types of positive personal news—such as a new romance, an upcoming trip, or being in a position to pay down some debt. On average, people reported they were experiencing about 15 things on that list—five to six of which they hadn’t told anyone about.

Participants were then randomly assigned to reflect on an experience they had talked about with others or one that they currently were keeping secret. Those who reflected on secret good news reported they felt much more “energized” than those who reflected on good news they had already shared.

“It’s not energy in the sense of, you know, ‘I just drank coffee,’” says Michael Slepian, an associate professor of business at Columbia University, the author ofThe Secret Life of Secrets” and a lead researcher on the study. Instead, he described it as a kind of “psychological energy,” more like the feeling you get when you are deeply engaged in something.

The research nuances our understanding of the science of secrets, which so far has focused on the detrimental effects, says Andreas Wismeijer, a lecturer in psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who has also studied secrets (but did not work on the new paper).

“If you keep information secret simply because you want to,” he says, “and your choice reflects your personal values and convictions, this study shows it may actually be beneficial.”

Not all secrets are created equal

Many people hold on to secrets because they fear the negative consequences of sharing them, Dr. Wismeijer and Dr. Slepian say—and the harm seems to come from ruminating on them.

Negative secrets—such as a lie you are concealing or a time when you violated someone’s trust—tend to deplete us, Dr. Slepian says.

In a prior study, he found that people who were preoccupied with an important secret judged hills to be steeper and believed physical tasks required more effort, as if the secret were weighing them down and zapping their energy. Negative secrets also have been linked to anxiety and relationship problems.

Positive secrets, however, don’t seem to have this effect. Rather, people seem enlivened by them. One factor could be that people often have different motivations for keeping good news to themselves.

In another part of Dr. Slepian’s most recent study, participants were asked to think about a secret they felt good about, a secret they felt bad about, or simply a current secret. They were then asked if they were intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to keep the secret—that is, if they were compelled by personal reasons or by external forces or consequences. Those with positive secrets were much more likely to report that they were keeping quiet for internal reasons; not because they felt any outside pressures. The study noted that “autonomous motivation” is known to contribute to feelings of vitality.

“You feel really in control over positive secrets,” Dr. Slepian says, “and that may be part of what makes them feel energizing.”

Savoring’ is important

Dr. Slepian says his new research shouldn’t inspire people to withhold positive news indefinitely, although participants in the study said that keeping a positive secret made them feel energized regardless of whether they intended to share it. (He gave the example of a hobby or pastime that brings you happiness, but that you don’t necessarily want to discuss with others.)

Dr. Slepian believes that the findings dovetail nicely with research on “savoring,” which has shown that appreciating everyday pleasures—like how the air smells when you step out the front door—can help bring joy and improve your mind-set. Taking extra time to sit with a happy secret you plan to eventually revea —like a desired pregnancy or an exciting life change—may have similar effects.

Dr. Slepian offers the example of giving someone a present: Sure, you can pick something without much thought and immediately hand it over. Or you can spend a bit of time mulling over what the best gift would be and envision the person’s delight. You can wrap the gift to prolong the secrecy, even for just a few extra seconds, and add to the sense of ritual.

“Positive events tend to sort of blend together,” Dr. Slepian says. “One way to sort of break out of that, and to leverage the positive experiences that we all have, is just to spend a little more time with them, thinking about them, reflecting on them and enjoying them.”

Keeping a positive secret, he said, “is like turning the dial up to 11 on that process.”

Research contact: @nytimes