Keeping Good News a Secret May Have Energizing Effects

5 min read

Good news seems to come in dribs and drabs, while bad news regularly floods our minds. Because there’s such a disparity between the amount of good vs. bad news we’re exposed to every day, finding ways to optimize the positive emotions associated with a morsel of good news could help brighten your day.

Sofia Shultz/Pixabay

Sofia Shultz/Pixabay

But how can you milk the joyfulness associated with something good happening in your life? A new study suggests that keeping “positive secrets” has an energizing effect that makes people feel happier and more alive. The latest findings (Slepian et al., 2023) on the bright side of secrecy were published today in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“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,” first author Michael Slepian of Columbia University said in a November 2023 news release. “Positive secrets that people choose to keep should make them feel good, and positive emotion is a known predictor of feeling energized.”

Interestingly, Slepian and colleagues found that keeping positive secrets, even for a very short time, can be energizing. Additionally, keeping a positive secret for eternity and never telling anyone can have prolonged energizing effects.

One reason positive secrets are energizing is that they make us feel good. Another reason, according to Slepian and colleagues, is that the motivation to keep a positive secret is usually intrinsic and within one’s locus of control, whereas keeping negative secrets is often driven by extrinsic motivation and external factors that are much less controllable.

Negative Secrecy Is Often Motivated by Shame

Negative secrets are usually governed by extrinsic motivation rooted in potential shame, embarrassment, or critical judgment. When people keep secrets about something they feel bad about or conceal personal information they fear would cause them to be shunned, the secret has all the power, which can make the secret keeper feel powerless and enervated.

For example, as a gay teen, I kept my sexual orientation a secret from my parents and extended family long after I’d come out to my friends and classmates because I was afraid of being rejected or disowned by my blood relatives. Keeping this negative secret was draining and ate me up inside.

It wasn’t until I came out to Mom, Dad, and everyone in my family that I could finally feel comfortable in my own skin. Just like keeping a positive secret can be energizing, letting go of a negative secret increased my vitality and stopped the enervating effects of negative secrecy.

Positive Secrecy Makes Us Feel Good

After reading Slepian et al.’s latest paper (2023), I realized that positive secrecy plays a big part in Christmas morning’s energizing effect and the good cheer created by buying surprise gifts for others in the weeks leading up to whatever gift-giving holiday someone is celebrating in December.

Christmas and other celebrations that involve giving people gift-wrapped presents are an easy way to hack positive secrecy’s energizing power. Beyond altruism’s warm glow, wrapping paper that conceals a package’s contents seems inadvertently designed to optimize the benefits of positive secrets.

For example, last year, on November 19, 2022, Nike released an overhyped sneaker called the Jordan 1 Chicago “Lost and Found.” My teenage daughter is a sneakerhead and was obsessed with getting this OG shoe the day it dropped—but everyone knew it was a unicorn that would sell out fast. So, without telling her, I downloaded the Nike SNKRS app and entered the draw on release day. Although she failed to cop a pair, I lucked out and won a pair in my kid’s size!

Wrapping up this hard-to-get present in late November filled me with a sense of eagerness and anticipation for the “big reveal” on Christmas day. Keeping this positive secret throughout the end of November and most of December filled me with energetic vibes every day for over four weeks.

Judging from my daughter’s uncontrollable squeals of delight when she tore off the wrapping paper and saw the distinctive Lost and Found box, I suspect being surprised by a totally unexpected gift that had been kept secret made her feel more vivacious on Xmas morning, too; and made me glad I hadn’t let the cat out of the bag earlier.

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“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 explains. “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.”

One Evidence-Based Reason to Ask for Bad News First

The next time a truthteller who’s been keeping secrets asks, “Do you want the good or bad news first?” opt for the bad news first and let them keep the good news under wraps for a little longer.

Holding onto a positive secret, even briefly, can amplify the energizing power of positive secrecy for all parties involved. Along these same lines, letting go of negative secrets sooner than later is liberating and takes away negative secrecy’s enervating ability to drain one’s vitality.

“People will often keep positive secrets for their own enjoyment or to make a surprise more exciting. Rather than based on external pressures, positive secrets are more often chosen due to personal desires and internal motives,” Slepian concludes. “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.”

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