It's been an ugly year for investors thus far. The S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC) closed at a 22-month low last week as concerns about a weakening Chinese economy, low oil prices, and a possible recession rocked the market.

The broad-based index is already down 8.8% in 2016 thanks to a sell-off that's swept through tech stocks, financials, and cyclicals. Defensive stocks such as telecoms and utilities have been rare winners in the current sell-off. These are stocks that pay a dividend and whose underlying businesses are less affected by macroeconomics.

A great way to find these stocks is using the list of S&P Dividend Aristocrats, which is made up of companies that have raised their dividend payouts every year for 25 consecutive years or more. The list includes Coca-ColaProcter & Gamble, and others which have shown the ability to grow in spite of recessions, competitive threats, and other challenges.

Worthy of royalty
For those interested in investing in a range of Dividend Aristocrats, the best vehicle may be the ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (NYSEMKT:NOBL).

NOBL includes all 50 Dividend Aristocrats, including household names like Wal-Mart Stores and McDonald's, as well as lesser-known stocks such as Cardinal Health and C.R. Bard. Consumer defensive and healthcare stocks account for more than 40% of its holdings, making it a relatively safe investment in today's market.

Since its inception in 2005, the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats Index has outperformed the S&P 500, with lower volatility. For investors, that combination of features provides an ideal combination -- better performance with less risk -- and will buffet your portfolio against a potential downturn. 

Source: S&P 

In the chart above the blue line represents the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats index and the red the S&P 500. Over the last ten years, the Dividend Aristocrats has returned 148%, compared to just 77% for the broad-market index. On an annualized basis, the Aristocrats index has increased 9.5% versus just 6% for the S&P 500.

NOBL offers a similar dividend yield to the S&P 500 at 2%, but its P/E ratio at 18 is lower than the S&P 500's 20.4. The ETF's lower ratio indicates that it's a better value as investors are getting a dollar in earnings for ever $18 spent on the stock, versus $20.40 for the S&P 500. In a bear market environment, that difference becomes more valuable as investors tend to head for value stocks. 

NOBL shares are down year-to-date, but only by 3.3% compared to the 8.8% loss for the S&P 500. Since the ETF it was launched in Oct. 2013, it's up 13% against a 6% gain for the S&P 500.

The ability to hedge against downturns, as NOBL provides, can lead to superior returns over time. In fact, it's been a major advantage of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway as his preference for stable cash-flow generators like insurance companies and big consumer-facing brands like Coca-Cola has mitigated the stock's losses in market downturns.

In fact, Aristocrats are just the type of stocks that Buffett targets -- dividend-paying companies with a track record of increasing profits.

Make your own ETF
For investors hungry for dividend income, focusing on the highest-paying Aristocrats may be an even better strategy.

Below are the top ten dividend yields on the Dividend Aristocrats:

Stock Dividend Yield
HCP, 8.45%
AT&T, 5.27%
Chevron 5.15%
AbbVie 4.29%
Emerson Electric 4.05%
Nucor 3.85%
Consolidated Edison 3.72%
ExxonMobil 3.65%
Archer-Daniels-Midland 3.52%
Procter & Gamble 3.25%

That combination of stocks has fallen by an average of 2.8% year to date, but the group is actually up slightly if HCP is subtracted from the list. The healthcare REIT has fallen 31% in 2016 as the company cut its outlook in a recent earnings report.

While HCP may not be the best example, investing in dividend stocks has been a time-tested strategy, outperforming non-dividend-paying stocks over the long haul. Whether you choose to invest in NOBL or borrow from some of its holdings and ideas, adding some long-term dividend growers to your portfolio can give it the ballast it needs to make it through the current market turmoil.

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.