Sometimes Keeping a Secret Can Bring Joy

FRIDAY, Nov. 17, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Good news is fun to share, but you get more of a charge from it if you keep it under your hat for a while, a new study says.

Keeping good news a secret for a bit before telling someone else appears to make people feel more energized and alive, according to findings published Nov. 13 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The research provides a positive spin on secrecy, which up to now has only been researched in the context of hiding bad news, said lead researcher Michael Slepian, an associate professor of business at Columbia University in New York City.

“Is secrecy inherently bad for our well-being, or do the negative effects of secrecy tend to stem from keeping negative secrets?” Slepian said in an American Psychological Association news release. “While negative secrets are far more common than positive secrets, some of life's most joyful occasions begin as secrets, including secret marriage proposals, pregnancies, surprise gifts and exciting news.”

In all, 3 in 4 people say the first thing they would do upon learning good news is share it with someone, according to a survey of 500 people conducted prior to the study.

But five experiments with more than 2,500 participants indicate that keeping a positive secret could have mental health benefits.

In one experiment, participants were shown a list of nearly 40 common types of good news. These included saving up money, buying a gift for oneself or reducing a debt.

The participants then indicated which of those pieces of good news applied to their lives. They also were asked which they’d kept secret.

On average, people had 14 to 15 pieces of good news, and were keeping five to six of those secret.

Participants who reflected on their positive secrets said they felt more energized than those who thought about good news that wasn’t secret, researchers found.

People who reported that they intended to share their news with others also felt more energized, whether the news was secret or not.

“Positive secrets that people choose to keep should make them feel good, and positive emotion is a known predictor of feeling energized,” Slepian said.

But four follow-up studies revealed that positive secrets make people feel energized for another reason.

One experiment asked participants to select a piece of news that was most likely to happen to them in the near future, from the list of common types of good news.

One group then imagined that they kept the good news secret until they told their partner later that day, while another group imagined that they were currently unable to reach their partner and so were not able to tell them until later in the day.

Participants who imagined wanting to hold the information back to make the revelation surprising reported feeling more energized than those who were simply unable to reveal the information, researchers found.

In another experiment, participants recalled a current positive secret, negative secret and neutral secret.

Investigating motives, researchers found that people keep positive secrets for internal or personal reasons, rather than because they felt forced by outside pressures to keep the information secret.

Positive secrets made people feel enlivened when they could choose to keep the information secret, Slepian said. On the other hand, negative or embarrassing secrets are often governed by external pressures or fears.

“People will often keep positive secrets for their own enjoyment, or to make a surprise more exciting. Rather than based in external pressures, positive secrets are more often chosen due to personal desires and internal motives,” Slepian said. “When we feel that our actions arise from our own desires rather than external pressures, we also feel ready to take on whatever lies ahead.”

The research team also found that keeping good news a secret can make people feel energized and alive, regardless of whether they intend to share that information later with someone or not.

“People sometimes go to great lengths to orchestrate revealing a positive secret to make it all the more exciting. This kind of surprise can be intensely enjoyable, but surprise is the most fleeting of our emotions,” Slepian said. “Having extra time – days, weeks or even longer – to imagine the joyful surprise on another person's face allows us more time with this exciting moment, even if only in our own minds.”

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about the psychology of secrets.

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Nov. 13, 2023

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