I took my first investing class as a teenager, and one moment stands out in my memory. A fellow student asked the instructor, a stockbroker, about dividends.

"Dividends?" he asked. "I'm trying to make my clients wealthy. You don't do that waiting for tiny checks in the mailbox every quarter."

Even then, I had enough horse sense to know he was wrong. Paying attention to dividends is exactly how you become wealthy over time.

Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel made a wonderful discovery in his book The Future for Investors. The greatest long-term returns typically don't come from the most innovative companies, or even companies with the highest earnings growth. They come from companies that happen to crank out dividends year after year. Simply put, since the 1950s, "the portfolios with higher dividend yields offered investors higher returns."

Market commentary regularly centers around price gyrations, yet dividends have historically accounted for more than half of total returns.

Reinvest those dividends, and your results become even greater. Take Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT) for example. Since the late 1960s, Caterpillar's shares have increased 2,900%. But add in reinvested dividends, and total returns jump all the way to 8,300%:

Editorial

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

There's no ambiguity here: Over time, Caterpillar's share appreciation alone has paled in importance to the power of its reinvested dividends. The results are similar for other industrial manufacturers like Cummins (NYSE: CMI) and Dover (NYSE: DOV); reinvested dividends skew both companies' total long-term returns dramatically higher. If you're a long-term shareholder, don't worry about daily share wobbles. Devote your attention those dividend payouts and your commitment to reinvest them.

And how do Caterpillar's dividends look? The company has paid a dividend every quarter since 1933, with an average annual growth rate of 11.5% over the past 15 years. Excluding the annus horribilis of 2008, dividends have used up an average of just 30% of Caterpillar's free cash flow in recent years. Riding a global building boom, Caterpillar should produce above-average dividend results for the foreseeable future, accelerating further once the U.S. construction market picks up anew.

To earn the greatest returns, get your priorities straight. What the market does is less important than what your company earns. What your company earns is less important than how much it pays out in dividends. And what it pays out in dividends is less important than whether you reinvest those dividends.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.