You may be a veteran of the stock market, but nobody knows it all. Indeed, the very best investors remain students of the market for their entire lives, always ready to learn something else that might make them more money.

With that as the backdrop, here's a visualization you've probably not seen before: a comparison of the S&P 500's net point gains to the index's cash dividends dished out to shareholders. You might be surprised by just how much investment wealth doesn't come from price appreciation.

A person looking intently at a laptop computer.

Image source: Getty Images.

Much more price appreciation than dividend income

No, an index doesn't technically pay dividends to shareholders, as an index isn't an investment you can actually plug into. It's just a hypothetical basket of stocks meant to approximate the overall performance of the broad market (or a narrow sliver of it). Funds like the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust are simply built to reflect the performance of the market's major indexes. Such instruments are not only easy to own, but they typically perform better than actively-managed portfolios.

However, Standard & Poor's is nice enough to supply data about its flagship index that allows investors to do some cool market-based research. One of these datasets is how much the S&P 500 would have historically paid in dividends were it itself a stock-like investment. The chart below compares the index's cumulative dividend payments going all the way back to the first quarter of 1988 to the index's cumulative point gains from the same starting point. Take a look.

A comparison of dividends paid by the S&P 500 to its price growth since 1988.

Data source: Standard & Poor's. Chart by author.

If you're looking for specific numbers, the S&P 500 has paid out about $849 worth of dividends since the beginning of 1988, but it has added $3,714 worth of "per-share" value during the same time frame. Translation: Capital appreciation has accounted for about four times as much value creation as dividends alone have. Or to put it another way, dividends only make up about a fifth of the sort of wealth growth that stocks have created for investors over the course of the past three-plus decades.

Not permanent but indefinite

There's an important footnote to add here: The comparison assumes you're not reinvesting dividends in the same stock (or index, in this case) that's paying said dividends. Had you done that, your overall dividend-based gains would have been greater, as you'd accumulate more shares over time. Most investors would have likely done something constructive with this dividend income, if not reinvesting it back into the S&P 500, then at least investing it in another growth-driving or income-producing instrument.

It's also worth noting that the period in question is one that's seen unusually strong capital gains compared to dividend income. Numbers crunched by mutual fund company Hartford Funds indicate that going all the way back to the 1940s, dividends account for an average of around 40% of the stock market's total gains.

To this end, don't ignore that interest rates have been oddly low since the dot-com bubble burst. Dividend yields have simply reflected investors' most accessible alternative means of generating regular income, slightly adjusted for risk.

And this mixed message is somewhat the bigger point. Not only is there always more to the story, the story's always changing. We may well ease back into an environment where income is en vogue and price improvement is less thrilling. Or we may not. All we can do right now is act on what we see, and at the moment, most market-based gains are coming from price growth, not from dividend income. Plan accordingly.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.