In better times, you could buy a stock and count on it going up over the long run. But the events of the past decade have many investors questioning even that fundamental tenet of the stock market. If you're skeptical about whether your investments will rise in value over the years, then there's no substitute for stocks that prove their value year in and year out.

It's all paper
By now, many investors feel like they have a severe case of whiplash. After seeing the bull market of the 1990s raise stock prices to unprecedented levels, stocks proceeded to lose half their value from 2000 to 2002 -- only to rise again to set new records. That victory was short-lived, however, as 2008's bear market again pushed stocks back down to 10-plus year lows.

Along the way, you've probably seen numerous stock picks that initially seemed like great selections turn into complete disasters. Having profits on paper is nice, but if you never see any of the fruits of a stock's success, then the only thing that matters is how much you paid to buy your shares, and how much you get when you sell. The ups and downs in the stock's price in the interim don't mean a thing.

But if you want something more tangible than paper gains from your stocks, there's an alternative whose value no one can dispute. By investing in stocks that offer significant dividends, you'll reap the benefits of owning shares each time you receive a dividend payment.

Show me the money
You might think that given how small most dividends are, compared to the market price of a stock, they're hardly worth considering at all. But as long-term investors know, all it takes is time to turn even the smallest payouts into big profits.

For instance, let's take a look back at the last 10 years, which many are now affectionately calling the lost decade. The S&P 500 couldn't manage to break even over that period.

Many stocks haven't seen much of a price change in their shares since 2000. But among them, some that pay sizable dividends have actually seen fairly substantial total returns. Take a look at these seven stocks:

Stock

10-Year Price Change

10-Year Total Return

Dividends Paid Per Share Since 2000

Nicor (NYSE:GAS)

15.9%

87.4%

$18.28

Kimco Realty (NYSE:KIM)

10.3%

91.6%

$11.76

Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG)

31.4%

64.5%

$11.59

H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ)

25%

80.7%

$14.46

ConAgra Foods (NYSE:CAG)

15.5%

70%

$8.90

Limited Brands (NYSE:LTD)

18.4%

63.4%

$6.01

Kimberly Clark (NYSE:KMB)

(1.7%)

32.4%

$18.03

Source: Yahoo! Finance. As of Feb. 9. Prices and dividends adjusted for splits.

As you can see, those stocks hadn't enjoyed much in the way of capital appreciation since 2000. But when you add dividends to the picture, suddenly the total returns involved look a lot more attractive. And when you compare the amount of cash you've received in dividends over the years to what you actually paid for the shares 10 years ago, you'll realize that many investors have already gotten back a good portion of what they invested in the first place.

What dividends prove
Of course, you might respond that many investors never actually touch the cash they get from dividends. Instead, they plow it right back into additional shares of stock. That strategy works even better than taking the cash when your stock goes up or stays steady over time -- but it can backfire if you pick a stock like General Motors or Fannie Mae that never recovers from its huge losses.

Regardless, dividends give you a tangible measure of value that is reassuring during times of uncertainty. No matter what price the market puts on a particular stock at any given moment, the money companies pay out in dividends is real. Once you get it, no one can take it away from you.

So if you're skeptical about the future of the overall market, take a close look at dividend-paying stocks. Capital appreciation is never a sure thing, but the combination of solid underlying businesses and substantial payouts you'll receive will make a believer out of you.

If you want to the top dividend stocks you can find, look no further. Todd Wenning can tell you the best dividend stocks of the decade.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger knows how little things add up over time. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. H.J. Heinz, Kimberly Clark, and Procter & Gamble are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy was designed with skeptics in mind.