Volume 11 No. 1 SPRING 2010

Don’t Worry—Be Happy, Says B-School Professor

Long before work-life balance started appearing as a core value on corporate Web sites, Bill Nickels, emeritus professor of marketing, taught business students at the University of Maryland about life management through his legendary “happiness lecture.”

Bill NickelsInstead of recommending long hours and aggressive tactics for getting ahead, Nickels prescribed a different course. “Think of happiness as a goal instead of something that happens when you become a success at something,” says Nickels, who was surprised to observe that many of his high school friends who had become successful in careers as doctors and lawyers were not happy. “I said, wait a minute, they told us that if we were successful we would be happy, and they’re not.”

Nickels eventually wrote a book on the subject, Win the Happiness Game. It’s no longer in print, but the principles he taught—and embodied—have influenced tens of thousands of students.

Nickels was known to be a great—and funny—teacher, turning key concepts into catchy one-liners like “a percentage of a lot is more than a percentage of a little” and “almost everybody almost all the time is almost always wrong.” One student even took Nickels’ quotes and turned them into buttons for other students to wear.

“He definitely used humor,” says Millicent Locke ARHU’83. “He told lots of stories and was down to earth, folksy. He’d take his philosophy on life and turn it into true marketing principles.” Over the course of his 25-year Maryland career, Nickels’ students selected him as “Outstanding Teacher on Campus” four times. Many of his former students still keep in touch, and he loves receiving messages from people like Carly Fiorina, who went on to lead Hewlett-Packard and is currently campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat in California. “Carly Fiorina said I taught her how to have a sense of humor,” Nickels recollects.

Nickels didn’t just teach students how to be happy, of course. He is also author of several scholarly works in the field of marketing. And the introductory textbook he co-authored, Understanding Business, is in its 9th printing and is the number one textbook in its area worldwide. It’s been translated into Chinese and Spanish, and it is often the only business course taken by students in some community colleges.

Nickels hopes his students remember the basics of marketing he worked so hard to make interesting and accessible for them. But he’s also resigned to being forever known as the Happiness Lecture guy. “After a whole semester talking about business, I would talk about life, stress and life management. And they remember that, because it was fun, interesting, useful, applicable,” says Nickels.

And because that lecture had such a significant impact on so many of his students, people still call and request that Nickels come visit their organizations to deliver the Happiness Lecture to their employees.

Nickels is retired from full-time teaching these days, but he keeps busy writing successive editions of Understanding Business. Nickels also lives up to his own advice and schedules daily time for fun with golf, tennis, and dinner outings with friends.

But he also finds happiness in his continuing student connections. “I’m happy that they’re using the principles,” says Nickels. “I’m happy that they write me every once in a while and tell me that they are using the principles. And I’m happy that they’re happy.”

Two Pieces of Advice from the Happiness Lecture

Schedule time for fun, two hours a day.

“People say they don’t have two hours a day. Of course, they have twenty-four. But they just don’t take them.”

Appreciate what you have right now.

“Happiness is the ability to appreciate fully who you are, what you have, and life the way it is now. Treat happiness as a goal, instead of something that happens when you become a success at something. By then it’s too late.”

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