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.