The secrets to happiness

War survivors share their most valuable lessons on life, love and loss

Don’t keep looking for things that are unobtainable, but just be thankful for what you have.

I was married to my husband for 56 years and I miss him but, as you look back on your life, you realise you’ve got to keep your memories alive as they’re the most important things that have happened to you. Remember to keep talking to the people you have lost in life. You can keep them alive in your mind - don’t ever think that they’re gone for good.

The advantage of getting older is that you look back on your life and realise the things you were worried about simply weren’t important. But at the time, you can worry yourself silly about things. So don’t go worrying about anything, and just keep trying to see the other side of things. You have to have these experiences to be able to live and understand other people.

Of course it’s only on reflection that you don’t worry, but if you ever get the chance to do something completely different in your life, don’t think, ‘Can I do it? Will I get hurt?’ If you get any opportunities, just take them. Because you’ll never get them twice, and you never know what a thrill you might get.

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Elaine Webb, 76, was born in Liverpool in 1940. Her family home was destroyed by a bomb when she was two and her father died when she was four. She was left with no choice but to leave home at 17 due to issues with her stepfather. A former carer, she has been married twice and has one son. She lives in London.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is just to keep smiling and be positive. Don’t forget to keep your sense of humour in life.

I’ll never forget what someone said to me years ago: ‘there’s always a little bit of good in the worst of us, and a little bit of bad in the best of us’. I always try to find the best in people.

I’ve been very fortunate, having had a wonderful job and a wonderful son. There’s very little I’d like to change now. But if you are unhappy with your life, just go out there and change it. Move house, move jobs, move schools. See what works for you – you can always go back to what you had.

The older generation have had to be strong in their time, living through two world wars, and we often say the youngsters don’t understand what it was like back then – I think they worry too much now. It’s good to remember that life works as it works.

There’s always a little bit of good in the worst of us, and a little bit of bad in the best of us.

It’s important to look on the bright side of life rather than focus on the negatives. I always say, what’s the point of worrying? You’re only going to make yourself ill.

The benefit of going through a hardship is that it makes you use your mind. You are capable of doing anything you want, but sometimes you have to go through trials and tribulations to come to your senses. For example, during the war, everyone was just trying to survive as best they could. There was no fighting or quarrelling. We were always looking for things to do, from watering the vegetables to going for a swim, and I have learnt the importance of keeping myself occupied. Being busy makes me happy. 

What’s the point of worrying? You’re only going to make yourself ill.

I don’t know if it’s in our blood, but people then were definitely happier doing things, rather than wasting their time sitting down to watch TV or listen to the radio. I used to teach sewing lessons to people who had mental illnesses and I learned that having a hobby is a good way to occupy your mind.

It’s also important to remember to be grateful and thankful for what you have. Life is really boring and selfish unless you help others, especially when you retire and become a pensioner. Going out and talking to others keeps you going: your friends will keep you young.

It’s good to learn from each other and it will make your life happy and contented.

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Joyce, 88, spent the majority of her life in Finchley, north London, after her family home was destroyed during the war when she was 13 years old. She worked in a bakery, and later as an underwriter, while dedicating her spare time to caring for her mother and two aunts who were injured during the war. She was married at 60 and has no children.

When my home was destroyed during the war I was hiding in a cellar, away from the bombs. I wasn’t killed but suddenly my family and I were completely homeless and just out on the street. It was a really bad time but, being British, we came through.

The older generation had a very hard time during the war. My aunts were buried alive and had to be dug out of the remains of their home. They came to live with us in our new house in Finchley and as I was the youngest I did most of the work. It was really difficult but I don’t regret staying home and helping, even though I wish I had married earlier and had a family. It’s important to remember that sometimes these things just aren’t meant to be.

Whatever happens, when it comes to the crunch, you always have to make the decision that is right for you. Sometimes it’s not as pleasing as you would like it to be, but decisions do have to be made.

And later, if you realise you have made the wrong decision, you just have to try and put it right, as much as you can. 

You always have to make the decision that is right for you.

I knew the minute I saw Dudley, my future husband, that he was the one for me. But we didn’t get married as soon as I would have liked and when we did, it was a bit late. We were only together for a short time because of our age, but that’s just what happens in life.

However, I’m glad I waited until I met the right person, as having a good friendship with someone makes a tremendous difference to a marriage.

And if you’re fortunate enough to make friends, look after them. You need people to help you through the dark periods and when you’re on your own you need the loving care of other people. I was recently in hospital for eight weeks and was amazed by how many people came to visit me. That’s a time when you need friends.

I know that I did what I could in life, and I wouldn’t do anything differently now.

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Special thanks to Contact the Elderly, the only national charity solely dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation amongst older people, through regular face-to-face contact. See more here.