Together, almost nine years ago now, we watched the beginning of a downturn that cut the S&P 500 in half and dropped the Nasdaq nearly 80% off its highs. It was a maddening time for investors. Telecom and energy executives were caught with their hands in the corporate cookie jar. Technology shares plummeted, with hundreds of companies vanishing from sight.

Very few bear markets in U.S. history have hurt so much. Today's Sirius XM (NASDAQ:SIRI) was just Sirius back then, but its satellite radio business plan made it a bull-market darling. It fell from a split-adjusted $65 per share to less than $1 by 2003. And PMC-Sierra (NASDAQ:PMCS) traded from near $250 all the way down to $4.

Just how painful was it? Ask Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who proved that humans are innately loss-averse, particularly when it comes to money. Emotionally, losses hurt us far more than gains give us pleasure. Naturally, then, those massive declines crippled tens of thousands of investors, many of whom will never throw the one-two punch of savings and investment again.

Unfortunately, we're seeing the same trend today. We had corporate malfeasance at some of our country's most respected financial institutions, and now stocks have dropped and investors are swearing off the market. It doesn't have to be that way.

Win with moderate risk
The solution is not to bail out of the market altogether, nor to seek shelter exclusively in bond funds. With the right perspective and useful tools, you can strengthen your stomach and beat the market -- because you'll do so without assuming huge risk. I know that's true because it's being done every year by the world's master investors -- from Buffett to Lynch to Tillinghast to Miller.

Those who take the biggest risks and buy what's hot today usually take the biggest hits in down markets. In the meantime, a host of methodical, smart, and contrarian investors ring up great returns, even through tough markets, by adhering to Warren Buffett's first rule of investing: Preserve capital.

Today, I want to focus on one sweet way to preserve capital and beat the market. The general principle is simple: Buy stocks that have paid uninterrupted dividends for years.

Consistency to victory
Let's investigate this idea by looking first at Procter & Gamble. P&G has paid a stable dividend since 1890. Yep, you read that correctly -- the company has paid dividends steadily for the past 119 years. Some of you may be thinking, "Bor-ing!" But over the past 15 years, P&G has returned 11% annually, turning a $10,000 investment into nearly $50,000 today. And when stocks like this temporarily decline, owners still get the dividend payment, so they're inspired to be patient and calm -- two of the primary traits of the world's greatest investors.

Then there's CH Robinson Worldwide (NASDAQ:CHRW), which has paid a dividend every year for 12 years. Or boring PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP), which has increased its dividend every year since 1972. CH Robinson has returned 20% annually over the past decade and PepsiCo 11% annually over the past 15 years. This sort of investing success happens every day in our Motley Fool Income Investor advisory service. Using a combination of outsized yields and capital gains, the recommendations have beaten the market by five percentage points since the newsletter's inception in 2003.

But our team at II isn't picking just any old high-yielder. They believe that to outperform the market, you have to find financially strong, well-managed, undervalued companies that pay dividends. Why take a chance on Joe's Next-Generation e-Hot Dog Stand -- with its jumpy beta, battered balance sheet, and 50/50 chance of going bankrupt -- when you could invest in a stable ship that returns profits to shareholders and provides capital returns over the long term?

It's a tried-and-true formula, and if you follow it, you'll save yourself from the market's volatility.

One monster income investment
Finding great dividend payers isn't as simple as merely screening for yields. If it were, everyone would have bought shares of U.S. Shipping Partners a year ago when it yielded more than 15%. But the company is cyclical and sensitive to charter rates, and the stock dropped substantially on losses caused by more competition, lower rates, and higher fuel costs. It has since been delisted. Consider that a cautionary tale as investors salivate over Nordic American Tanker's (NYSE:NAT) -- an admittedly stronger company -- 11% yield today.

As with any investment, it's crucial to scrutinize a dividend payer's financial statements, management team, and business model. Determine how the dividends are being financed, what the payout ratio is and how that might affect future growth, and what the prospects for dividend increases may be. This is exactly what Income Investor does each month for members.

To see Income Investor's favorite stocks for new money now, click here. There's no obligation to subscribe, and maybe -- just maybe -- we'll come through this crazy market without any massive losses.

This article was originally published as "Do You Have the Stomach to Beat the Market?" on June 10, 2005. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of P&G, an Income Investor selection. PepsiCo is also an Income Investor recommendation. No Fool is too cool for disclosure, not even Tim.

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.