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How to Avoid Disappointment

A Personal Perspective: Thomas Wolfe on avoiding the angst of reunion.

Key points

  • While reunions and holidays can be wonderful experiences, they can also be stressful if not disappointing.
  • The possibility of the holiday blues can lead some to dread what is otherwise advertised as the happiest of occasions.
  • Thomas Wolfe's book "You Can't Go Home Again" provides insight into how to not only cope but prosper during the holdays.
Tumisu/ Pixabay
Source: Tumisu/ Pixabay

Did you ever wonder where the pithy aphorism, “You can’t go home again?” came from? Many of us find it difficult to go home after being away for an extended period of time. Many of us find it difficult to reunite with friends and family, especially over the holidays. Why? Why can’t you "go home again?” The term holiday blues has been used to describe the angst of disappointment or sadness that descends upon many of us during the holiday season. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year is a significant holiday period, but there may be others as well. Here are some thoughts on how to avoid the holiday blues as well as the angst of reunion from one of America’s greatest writers.

You Can’t Go Home Again

Thomas Clayton Wolfe (b. 1900, d. 1938) is considered one of America’s greatest writers. William Faulkner once referred to Wolfe as the greatest writer of his generation. This was high praise considering his literary contemporaries included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Faulkner himself. That he was a creative genius, there is little doubt, though his place in American literature has been frequently debated. He died just before his 38th birthday. Who knows what he might have achieved? Of interest to this discussion, his editor Edward Aswell at Harper and Brothers, published Wolf’s manuscript You Can’t Go Home Again posthumously in 1940.

If you study the roughly 700-page book, you discover many themes. Some are political, some are economic, some are sociological, and some are psychological. It is said it took the editor several years to compile the final version for publication. I will extract what I believe the key psychological theme to be and use it as a guiding light for navigating reunions of any kind, but especially the holidays.

Nostalgia Bias

What does “you can’t go home again” mean, psychologically speaking? Simply said, temporally, time marches on, and time continues to pass, but psychologically we may not. Our memories are often biased and static. Our past becomes frozen in time. This may then lead us to nostalgically accentuate the “good old days,” even distorting memories in an attempt at affirmation. This cognitive bias is called the “nostalgia bias.” This bias leads us to set inappropriately high expectations for reunions, the holidays, or other forms of “homecoming.” Advertising and social media simply fuel the illusion. In effect, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

Avoiding Nostalgic Disappointment

To avoid nostalgic disappointment:

  1. It seems to me, it’s okay to remember the past with nostalgia. It makes us smile.
  2. But it’s important to keep in mind that you have moved on, and others will have moved on. The physical environment most certainly will have changed. The “good old days” are irrevocably in the past.
  3. Use a reality check. Sometimes we forget the “good old days” weren’t always good. Even they had their challenges.
  4. As Sir William Osler once said, don’t expect too much from the people amongst whom you dwell as they too have their challenges.
  5. If someone offends you, assume benign stupidity rather than malice as its origin.
  6. Be accepting of the inevitability of change. Be like the Greek god Proteus who prospered only when he adapted to his environment.
  7. Use positive memories, even clouded in nostalgia as they may be, to look forward and build creating an even more positive future.

© 2022, George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.


Wolfe, TC (1940). You Can't Go Home Again, NY: Harper.

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