Take it from Taylor Swift, keeping secrets is good for your mental health, new research finds

Usually secrets burden people, but there can be something energizing about them, too

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published November 14, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Taylor Swift performs onstage during " Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour" at Estadio Más Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti on November 09, 2023 in Buenos Aires, Distrito Federal. (Marcelo Endelli/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)
Taylor Swift performs onstage during " Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour" at Estadio Más Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti on November 09, 2023 in Buenos Aires, Distrito Federal. (Marcelo Endelli/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)

Over the weekend, Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s relationship started a new chapter in their love story. Swift performed the ultimate public display of affection as a popstar by personalizing a song lyric for him.  

During Saturday’s performance of “Karma” in Argentina, she sang: “Karma is the guy on the Chiefs, coming straight home to me” (the lyric is usually “Karma is the guy on the screen, coming straight home to me.”) For those who aren’t keeping tabs on this celebrity couple, Kelce plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. Fans in the stands and across the internet, and even her dancers, literally screamed. Kelce, who was nearby, was caught bringing his hands to his face and breaking out in the sweetest smile. His emotional reaction suggests that this fearless creative move on Swift’s part likely came as a surprise, which meant she was keeping quite the secret, possibly from many in her orbit.

Swift is no stranger to holding secrets in light of turning something into a surprise. The 1989 star is known for her surprise songs on her Eras Tour. She’s even hosted secret, fan-only listening parties to preview new albums for fans in the past. The Swiftiverse is actually full of secrecy, but not that kind that boosts stress hormones, negatively affects blood pressure and keeps people from sleeping at night. And according to a new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, such secrets could actually be the reason why Swift has energy to make sparks fly night after night on tour. 

Not all secrets are bad, and if you’re keeping a “positive” or “good” secret, it can actually have the opposite effect.

Based on a handful of experiments led by Michael Slepian, an associate professor of business at Columbia University and author of “The Bright Side of Secrecy: The Energizing Effect of Positive Secrets,” keeping a secret can actually be good for your health. In a phone interview, Slepian told me that typically secrets are burdensome and can cause fatigue. When someone keeps a secret, it’s due to external pressure or fear of what others might think. This can be physically and mentally exhausting, Slepian said, and can actually be quite harmful to a person’s health, especially when a person’s mind is ruminating over that secret. The catch is that not all secrets are bad, and if you’re keeping a “positive” or “good” secret, it can actually have the opposite effect.

“We wanted to look into positive secrets. This is still secrecy, but now when the mind revisits this kind of secret, we see a very different kind of effect,” Slepian explained. “When people are thinking about their positive secrets, or even the more they think about their positive secrets, the more energized they feel.”

In the study, Slepian and his colleagues recruited 500 people and found that 76 percent of them said the first thing they do upon learning good news is share it with someone else — which is fair. But we know, not all good news can be shared right away, such as engagements, pregnancies or surprise birthday parties. In the next five experiments, researchers probed to better understand how sharing good news, or keeping good news a secret, affects a person’s mental health. 

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In one experiment, the researchers showed people a list of 40 types of good news, like buying a gift for someone or reducing debt. Researchers then asked the participants to select which good news bits they currently had themselves, and then, which ones they’ve kept a secret. Then they were asked to reflect on the good news they kept secret while others were asked to reflect on good news that wasn’t kept a secret. Participants proceeded to fill out a survey to rate how energized the news made them feel. The researchers found that people who reflected on their good secrets felt more energized than those who just reflected on good news that they didn’t keep a secret. 

This can be because the secret keepers are anticipating a really exciting revelation — like surprising your new boyfriend with a personalized song lyric, which can be reinvigorating. 

“For a lot of our secret good news, we intend to reveal it, and so there is that difference when people do intend to reveal their secret good news, that intention to reveal itself is energizing,” Slepian said. “Maybe people are anticipating how happy the other person is going to be to learn some news, or they're anticipating getting to celebrate the good news with someone.”

Swift aside, I asked Slepian what defines a “good” secret. The two words aren’t usually in the same sentence. 

“The difference is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “But the way we define it when we're running our studies, is we would say a negative secret is a secret that you feel bad about, and a positive secret is a secret about something you feel good about.”

When asked why the researchers focused on the idea of feeling energized, Slepian said it’s because previous research has suggested that keeping a secret can be draining and fatiguing. However, he found it’s not the secret itself that creates problems. It’s the mental gymnastics of keeping it that is fatiguing and can make people feel isolated.

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On the other hand, it seems that when people keep a good secret with the intent of sharing it, it’s no longer so problematic to the secret keeper. Slepian added that next in his research, he wants to explore the benefit of feeling control over keeping a secret, which could be why keeping good secrets is energizing. 

“Part of what makes positive secrets vitalizing and energizing, rather than fatiguing and burdensome, is that we feel in control of them,” Slepian said. “Maybe if we make people realize the control they have over their negative secrets, maybe we can see some of the benefits or at least reduce some of the costs of our prototypically negative secrets.”

Or maybe the answer is to only keep good secrets. 

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Mental Health Psychology Secrets Taylor Swift