Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

What’s your purpose in life? Have you thought about it lately? Or, on the other hand, do you avoid thinking about what your purpose might be?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to have purpose after a recent conversation with a client. Here’s what he said to me:

“I used to have a real purpose in life. I was doing something with my life. I’ll tell you what my purpose in life is now. To pull myself out of bed. To take my medication. To do everything my doctor tells me I have to do. To put one foot before the other to stay on top of this chronic condition I’m saddled with.” He shrugged his shoulders and added: “Some purpose. Right?”

To be honest with you, it’s always heartbreaking to hear clients talk about how they feel their lives are completely defined by their chronic condition. I ask myself if, by emphasizing the importance of making their self-care a priority, their healthcare team doesn’t unintentionally communicate that self-care is all their life is about.

Your purpose? It doesn’t have to be all about your chronic condition

Let’s take a look at that word, purpose. defines purpose as “the reason something exists or is done.” I guess from that perspective, my client is correct in describing maintaining his health as a purpose: He takes care of himself to stay as healthy as possible. But he had a purpose in mind that went beyond maintaining his health.

Living with a chronic condition can be a big job. And self-care has to be a priority. There’s no way around it. And maintaining your health is certainly a good reason for adhering to your self-care routine.

But your only purpose? That’s another question. And the answer goes back to that definition I gave you for purpose. Sure, responsibilities and limitations, are part of living with a chronic condition. But that doesn’t mean your life has to be all about meeting the demands of your chronic condition.

We often think of having a purpose in life in terms of doing, giving, creating. Having goals that we are working to achieve. And maybe, somewhere along the way, being acknowledged by others for our achievements. In that regard, purpose often implies goals that are somehow greater than the day-to-day routine of life.

Having a greater purpose in life was what my client wanted and thought was out of his reach. But it wasn’t out of his reach. We can all find a greater purpose in life. Here’s how:

Take a look at how you’re defining purpose. In American culture, we often think of life purpose in one of two ways. First, we think of it in terms of having a successful career, doing what we are good at, and having accomplishments to show for our hard work. Second, we think of purpose in terms of making a contribution of some kind, fighting against all odds to create a needed change or to right a wrong. The media certainly gives us all kinds of examples of purpose. Where does your definition line up? If you’re defining purpose based on how you see other people living their lives, or what you see in the media, then you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Each one of us is on our own path. With our own purpose.

Take your focus off the limitations. Sure, your chronic condition comes with all kinds of responsibilities, good days, bad days. You didn’t ask for this. And who would? But also consider what’s working in your life. The people who are important to you. Your job, if you are working. Your home. Your community. Your place of worship. Shift your focus to the big picture of your life.

Find ways to give. One of the best ways to experience a sense of having purpose in life is to give to others. Giving doesn’t have to mean writing a big check or spending the day building a house. There are all kinds of ways to give. Who’s around you who could use a smile, a few words of encouragement, a listening ear, a helping hand? If you look around, starting in your own home, you might find all kinds of opportunities for giving. So give it a try.

Be a role model. Everybody’s struggling with something, even if whatever they’re struggling with isn’t so obvious. You may be watching them and wondering what their life is like. And they may be watching you and wondering the same. Show the people around you how to face the challenges and responsibilities that life tosses in your direction. You can do this by taking good care of yourself, maintaining an optimistic attitude, and being willing to ask for help when you need it. Watching how you thrive can be a blessing to someone else.

Get happy. Give yourself permission to make your own happiness one of your priorities. Find activities you enjoy doing. Balance out the responsibilities of the day with what gives you pleasure. Find something to smile about every day. Being happy is good for your health and it helps you to maintain your perspective. Life is good!

Remember: Your purpose starts here. Right now. Purpose isn’t about dreaming the impossible dream. It’s about taking a step back and looking at your life and asking yourself what you can do to be of benefit to yourself and others. What’s your personal best? Define what that is for you, based on the opportunities and the limitations in your life. And then decide to live that truth.

How about this: Don’t focus on living with A purpose. Focus on living WITH purpose. Decide to be the best you can be. For yourself. For the people you care about. For the world. Seize the day!

More from Dr. Gary:

Ready to Be Kinder to Yourself? Ten Steps toward Self-Compassion
Talking to Your Doctor: Withholding Information
What's It Mean to Be Proactive?