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 shared 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 on price gyrations, yet dividends have historically accounted for more than half of total returns.

Reinvest those dividends, and it's even greater. Take Consolidated Edison (NYSE: ED), for example. Since the late 1960s, Edison's share price has increased 550%. But add in reinvested dividends, and total returns jump to a staggering 11,000%:

Ed

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

There's no ambiguity here: Over time, Edison's share appreciation alone has paled in importance to the power of its reinvested dividends. The results are similar for others in the utility space, such as Xcel Energy (NYSE: XEL) and CenterPoint Energy (NYSE: CNP). Reinvested dividends skew both companies' long-term results dramatically higher. Most think of utility companies such as Edison as boring, won't-get-you-anywhere investments, but long-term total returns with reinvested dividends have beaten the market average by over twofold. If you're a long-term shareholder, don't worry about daily share wobbles. Devote your attention to those dividend payouts, and your commitment to reinvest them.

And how do Edison's dividends look? At 4.4%, its current yield is well above average -- as you should expect from a utility. The company has paid a dividend every year since 1885, growing its payout by 6% a year for the past 35 years. Edison has one of the best long-term dividend track records and should produce solid, consistent returns for years to come.

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 owns shares of Edison. Follow him on Twitter at @TMFHousel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.