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Laughter as medicine: The health benefits of joy

Laughter has long been hailed as the best medicine, and for good reasons. When we laugh, our body responds in ways that promote physical and mental wellness. It helps children develop muscles and upper body strength, it can help the body manage the release of serotonin and it can reduce the negative impact of other neurotransmitters and hormones, such as cortisol, brought on by stress. With laughter there comes resilience, creativity, and empowerment. It bolsters the immune system and creates a sense of belonging, particularly for the youth, and, according to PhD Dr David Hamilton, dramatically reduces inflammation, improves the quality of sleep and is good for the heart.


This is why laughter is one of the key ingredients of the Reach For A Dream Foundation’s Laughter Hero project, which it established in 2007 to bring therapeutic entertainment and healing to children in hospitals. In 2023, seven Laughter Heroes worked 350 shifts to deliver 700 hours of fun to 11,085 children. One of these Laughter Heroes is 71-year-old Laetitia Spence, also known as Sunshine. She brings joy and laughter to children in the Eastern Cape, many of whom are suffering from long-term illnesses.


“My road to becoming a Laughter Hero was through my own children who weren’t physically ill but had a mental condition and I found a way through their challenges with joy and laughter,” she says. “Since 2020, I have been bringing laughter to children in the Dream Room at Dora Nginza Hospital, the largest training hospital in Gqeberha. I believe that if you can get someone to laugh with you, they are open to anything. I don’t think the body can heal without laughter.”


Laughter is a universal language

The laughter Spence brings with her transcends language and cultural barriers. Even though she doesn’t speak the same language as many of the children, Spence uses non-verbal communication to build rapport and evoke peals of laughter. She tilts her head to one side, widens her eyes, spins in a circle and creates an entertaining spectacle that is strangely captivating. It ends with her exclaiming, ‘Oh, dear!’ before retrieving a ball from behind a child’s ear.


That ball is very important because it turns into a very serious disease known as ‘spongelitus’.


“This fictitious malady is very visible and quite silly, but it makes the children laugh, and that’s what’s important,” says Spence. “Another trick I use is to walk into a ward and just start laughing, which makes everyone else join in. It is a powerful tool that allows me to transform a moment in time for a child in hospital.”


Spence also pays attention to the mothers. She gives them a card with the word ‘Mom’ written on it and then flips it over to reveal the word ‘Wow’ – because every Mom is a Wow, she says.


“My journey with Reach For A Dream started with a simple quote which is, ‘May your day be fashioned with joy, sprinkled with dreams and touched by the miracle of love’, and this is the message I want to focus on as a Laughter Hero,” says Spence.


One of the most profound moments Spence experienced in her role was when Reach For A Dream took orphaned and displaced children to the beach for the first time in Jeffrey’s Bay.

“Every experience was the first time ever for these children – the sand below their feet, the fresh smell of the ocean, and the taste of salty water. How they enjoyed building sandcastles amidst shrieks of happy laughter! In all my adult life, I have never experienced such a deep-seated feeling of joy and contentment,” she says.


For Spence, spending time with children is not just a job; it’s a rejuvenating experience. She believes adults can learn from children’s wonderment and innocence. “When you don’t see through the eyes of a child, you’ve lost so much. We are richer if we spend time with children. I believe it keeps you young,” she shares.

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