Religion is good for mental health so can tech replicate the positive aspects?

Steven Loeb · April 8, 2019 · Short URL:

VCs from Felicis Ventures, and the author of 100 Plus, debated at SplashX last week

Last week, Vator and UCSF Health Hub held our first salon of 2019 called The Future of Mental and Behavioral Health, where VCs, innovators and adopters (payers/providers) discussed how mental and behavioral health startups are creating solutions to help those suffering from mental health conditions. 

The first panel of the night, moderated by Bambi Francisco Roizen (Founder & CEO, Vator) and Archana Dubey (Global Medical Director at HP) with three panelists: Aydin Senkut (Partner, Felicis Ventures), Sonia Arrison (Author, 100 Plus) and Dasha Maggio (Partner, Felicis Ventures), had a more 50,000-foot focus on mental health, spanning from religion and mental health to longevity and mental health. 

At one point during the panel, the discussion turned toward religion: the impact it has on mental health and the ways tech can potentially replicate some of the positive aspects of religion. 

Francisco leaned into the topic by first pointing out that according to the book Upward Spiral, written by neuroscientist Alex Korb, gratitude has a significant positive effect on our mental health as it releases serotonin in the brain. Embracing gratitude is a big part of many religions and she said that studies show that people with religion live longer by five to 15 years. She looked to Arrison for comment. Arrison's book 100 Plus has a chapter specifically on religion and longevity.  

"When I was gathering data for this chapter, I spoke with a number of scholars of religion and one of them said to me, this [religion] was the best thing ever. He said, ‘Religion was the very first self-help discipline.' It’s the all-purpose technology, basically. He said, ‘If you go into a bookstore, religious texts are always near the self-help texts because they’re sort of similar.’ One of the reasons religion is good is the gratitude and the sense of purpose that you get from religion. Also the community; we know that when people spend more time with socializing and with friends, they live longer. That’s a fact," she said.

"All of those things together: the community, the purpose, the gratitude, evaluating yourself, not necessarily against other people but in terms how do you live the best life. One of the questions that religion particularly asks is, ‘What is the best life? How do I live the best life?’ If you’re focusing on that, you’re focusing on something positive and not negative, like you said."

Dubey then noted the positive effects gratitude can have on the brain and if technology can replicate some of the positive aspects.

"When we were looking at tools that are digitally available, or even in person that are available, they do have certain elements of gratitude. Random Acts of Kindness and CBT have tools in which they’re shifting from negative to positive, but the impact of that is not directly translated into decreasing the depression epidemic. Is there a missing piece between the solutions that we’re building now and religion that we could start to see that?"

For Arrison, that comes down to one word: engagement, and getting people to actually use the service on an ongoing basis.

"One of the things that religion is really good at is getting their members engaged. There’s a social aspect. Different religions have different ways of getting people engaged and, actually, if you break it down it actually gets really, really complicated because some religions are better for mental health than other religions," she said, comparing them to an app like Headspace or Calm, where people use it for a little while and then tend to drop it after a certain period of time.  

"If you’re part of a religious group and you’re attending church on a regular basis, you’re there and you’ve got this community and your friends, and that’s all wound up together in purpose and gratitude and all that. It comes naturally, it’s real. This is why people like to be with other people."

Francisco then chimed in: "The thing with religion is there’s some truth you are gravitating toward. What creates this community and purpose is this commitment to some truth and a deep, deep belief that you don’t get in a meditation app. Clearly, religion is helping us live longer, whether you believe it or not, but these people have deep belief. So, how do we create an app that has people believing in something?" 

Arrison noted that, to prep for the panel, she had actually looked for a religious app and had found one to try out.  

"I downloaded it and it I listened to a bit of it and I realized that one of the things they kept repeating over and over, which did actually make me feel happy, despite the fact that I’m not particularly religious, was that, ‘You have this special relationship with God.’ It’s all about this sort of relationship you could only have here with this higher being that only has your best interests in mind. That’s pretty powerful," she said. 

Senkut spoke up about his own philosophy when investing in mental health apps, comparing them to how Fitbit changed the way we measure physical heath.  

"I’m wearing a Fitbit and the brilliance of a Fitbit is we never really understood or measured physical fitness. And now we can say, ‘If you’re inactive, 2,000 steps is great. If you’re a crazy marathon runner, 20,000 steps is great,’ but it made it actionable. So if you do 2,000 and 100 steps it's, ‘Wow, you had an improvement today.’ But then it comes to mental health, and you’re a doctor, the biggest problem is if you cannot measure it you cannot manage it, so I feel we’re in the dark ages," he said.

"So, we don’t think as a firm of investing in tech, like, ‘What is the religion app?' The thing we’re more obsessed with is, ‘How can we make mental health measurable and instrument- able, so it can be managed and we can help people?’ That’s what we’re obsessed with at the moment."

Dubey then brought it back to the engagement question, noting that, if an app like Calm were to become part of a person's daily routine early in life, it could have that same engagement as religion.

"If Calm became part of a family early on, a kid probably would do some kind of mindfulness as they grow up. We, as a society, have never created that as part of, if you brush your teeth to keep the health of your teeth together, why not do a Calm for five minutes to keep your brain together? That’s a habit aspect that we don’t have built into our life in general," she said.

Finally, Maggio made the point that, ultimately, it can be anything, not just a meditation app, that fills in the gap of some of the things that religion offers. 

"Looking towards the future, the Millennial generation is one of the least religious, if I remember correctly. It was a project that came out of the Harvard Divinity School called How We Gather, and it was all about what is augmenting and replacing the aspects of religion? Community, a value system, all the things that are replacing it and they had many," she said.

"Even something like SoulCycle was on there. It’s silly but it’s not silly, if you think about it. It’s really, really interesting to think about how mental health and brain health and the measurable also blends into spiritual, as we’re discussing here."

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Thank you to our sponsors: UCSF Health Hub, BetterHelp, Vator, Advsr, Avison Young, ScrubbedHP and Stratpoint.

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Aydin Senkut

Joined Vator on


Bambi Francisco Roizen

Joined Vator on

Founder and CEO of Vator, a media and research firm for entrepreneurs and investors; Managing Director of Vator Health Fund; Co-Founder of Invent Health; Author and award-winning journalist.

Archana Dubey, MD

Joined Vator on

Global Medical Director, Hewlett-Packard Enterprises