Hidden Garden: Exploring the Science Behind Secret Keeping and its Impact On Our Wellness

Hidden Gardens

One study out of the Netherlands that zeroed in on secret-keeping in older adults found that nearly 85 per cent of respondents had at least one secret that they had kept for more than 10 years. Illustration: Hanna Barczyk

Most of us have at least one secret we’ll take to our grave. Jay Teitel explains how science supports our need to stay silent.


“Three people may keep a secret, if two of them are dead”

—Benjamin Franklin

 I have a secret I will take to my grave – and so, almost certainly, do you.

According to a 2017 study authored by Michael Slepian, an associate professor of business at Columbia Business School, the average adult is currently harbouring 13 secrets, five of which they have not divulged to another human being. There’s a 33 per cent chance that at least one of those secrets concerns a theft or hidden relationship, a 47 per cent chance it involves the breaking of another person’s trust, and a 60 per cent chance it relates to a lie or financial “impropriety.” 

Secret hobbies are a common theme, as is hidden sexual orientation, even today. Interestingly, Slepian found no hierarchy of guilt when it comes to guilty secrets. A concealed white lie can weigh on a person as heavily as the concealed creation of a Ponzi scheme. Even then, according to respondents, remorse as a negative takes a back seat to obsession, the sheer amount of time people spend returning to certain secrets again and again, to dust them off, as it were. The worst thing about having a secret may not be shame, it turns out, but housekeeping.

The one thing Slepian’s study neglected to identify was the demographic group most likely to harbour, and be affected by, secrets they will take to the grave. The people who are closest to the grave. Us.


“Do not tell secrets in a field that is full of little hills” 

—Hebrew proverb

The psychologist who did ultimately zero in on secrets and older adults was Dr. Joyce Maas, a senior researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Maas thought it was odd that the bulk of secrecy research was done with either college students or the general population, because older adults had far “more opportunities for secrets to develop … and to potentially have an effect on [their] well-being.” Her 2018 landmark study collected data through a famous Dutch questionnaire called the Senioren Barometer, published annually to gauge the needs and strategies of the aging Dutch population. It found older people did in fact have more diverse secrets, and nearly 85 per cent of older people had at least one secret that they had kept for more than 10 years. 

 The study also found that when the responses of “self-concealing” (chronically secretive) subjects, and “cognitively preoccupied” (obsessive) subjects were discounted, keeping a secret for older people was actually associated with a better quality of life. The investigators reasoned that the exercise of secret-keeping might be regarded as a kind of accomplishment, one which safeguarded not just the person keeping the secret, but those from which it was being kept. 

In simple terms, if Senior A says, “I keep everything secret,” and Senior B says, “I have a special secret, and I can’t stop thinking about it,” and Senior C says, “I have a secret I swear I will never tell anyone,” then secrecy is a minus for A and B, and a plus for C. The secret that is taken to the grave turns out to be a qualified gift. We’ve all heard more than once that physical activity is a key to happiness in old age, as is social engagement. But keeping a secret?  Who knew? 

Hidden Gardens
Illustration: Hanna Barczyk


“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself” 

—George Orwell, from ‘1984’

This is not to say there are no poisonous secrets, the kind that are better not kept, to the grave or otherwise. The most problematic types tend to be secrets we keep about and from other people, sometimes harmful for the secret-keeper, but doubly harmful for those the secret is kept from. Ironically, Slepian, the man who literally wrote the book on the subject (The Secret Life of Secrets), was involved in just such a secret himself. On the same day he finally presented the results of the research he’d been doing in the psychology of secrets at Columbia, Slepian received a phone call from his father, who revealed to him something astonishing. Contrary to what Slepian had grown up believing, his father was not his biological parent; he had been unable to procreate, and a donor’s sperm had been used instead. Similarly, his younger brother’s conception was donor-sperm aided, but with a different donor. So, the sons were half-brothers, with different fathers. Various members of the extended family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, had been privy to this secret all along, but Slepian had not. He was 26 years old. 

“The question of whether to reveal a secret to the person you’re keeping it from can be complicated,” Slepian told me on the phone from his office at Columbia. “The easiest case is the white lie, when we keep our true reactions secret to avoid hurting someone. There’s nothing to be gained by telling someone ‘I don’t like your haircut’ or ‘I don’t like your outfit’ or ‘I actually didn’t like that croquettes poulet recipe you spent the entire day working on.’ 

“But the really complicated secrets, like the one revealed to me, are different,” he continued. “More than one reader of my book has told me that my story, being secretly donor-conceived, is their story, too. Some of them only learned about it after their dads passed away; so, people do take that secret to the grave. I didn’t have to wait that long. I even got to talk to my grandmother about it, who knew about the secret from the beginning. But what I didn’t know, until she passed away, was how much her involvement influenced the secret being kept. 

“She apparently didn’t want me and my younger brother to feel that we weren’t part of the family; she thought disclosing the secret would have that effect,” he added. “But, in fact, revealing the secret had exactly the opposite effect. When I learned that our family relationships to my dad weren’t based on some biological imperative, it made those feelings between him and us more meaningful, not less. It would have earlier on, too. I wish my grandmother had known that.” 

The “donor-conceived” secret is a close cousin to the “secret sibling” secret, the discovery late in life of the existence of a brother or sister people never knew they had. But, Slepian points out, all genetic-related secrets will be harder to keep in future, because people can now send their DNA samples to online ancestry services, which can promptly remove any mystery about their origins or kin.

“One service, 23andMe, will give you geographic genetic breakdowns, but there’s another, Ancestry.com, which will give you actual matches of actual relatives” he said. “At that point, there’s a good chance you might see someone you’ve never heard of, and you’re really closely related to. A half-sibling, say, or an uncle or an aunt.”

Or a father. 

The secrets that harm secret-keepers the most are the ones they keep about themselves. Slepian has written about the acute loneliness of some solitary secret-keeping, the weight of having potent or fraught information that you cannot confide to anyone. He cites Edward Snowden, the famous National Security Agency whistleblower who gathered explosive evidence over a period of years that he couldn’t share, and Tony Soprano, the famous fictional waste-management executive who knows where all the bodies are buried, yet can’t tell anyone about that, either. But by far the most fatal solitary human secret, paradoxically, is the unshared thought of suicide. In 2020, a group of researchers conducted a study involving 159 American suicide survivors, and found that those who were able to overcome the intense stigma associated with self-harm and talk to therapists about their past history were far less likely to attempt suicide again than those who consigned themselves to keeping their past secret, which in turn led to an increase in “suicidality.”  

Less lethal, but weighty nonetheless, are the secrets non-suicidal people tell you about themselves. My secret is one of these. Four decades ago, in a semi-dark kitchen late at night, a person I knew told me a secret they had. It’s very possible that if you asked them today, that person might not remember the night or the incident; it’s also possible that if they did, they might not have expected me to keep what they had told me secret forever, to never tell a soul about it. But I have, and as long as I have my faculties on this Earth, I will continue to sequester it in my brain. I don’t think about it often, but when I do, the fact that I have kept the secret for so long makes me feel uniquely good.

“It is wise not to seek a secret, and honest not to reveal one,” wrote the American Quaker leader William Penn in 1682, in his aptly titled collection Some Fruits of Solitude. It’s too late for me to be wise, so honesty it is, with a side of curiosity. I will never tell you my secret. But feel free to tell me yours. 

A version of this article appeared in the Dec 2023/Jan 2024 issue with the headline ‘Hidden Gardens’, p. 60.