BALTIMORE ( Stockpickr) -- It's earnings season, and dividend hikes are continuing to flow in for investors this quarter.Dividend announcements and earnings season go hand-in-hand each quarter, as companies make the logical step of going from talking about their profits to whether they'll be using those profits to pay shareholders. Dividend payouts are particularly important in 2012, after a year when owning stocks that pay dividends meant a 53% increase in total investment returns. This week, a total of 41 companies announced hikes in their cash payouts to shareholders, contributing to an increase in dividends by 19% vs. the quarter one year ago. That's proof positive that companies are deploying their record cash reserve to increase investor returns in 2012. That's a very good thing since ultimately, those dividends can have a huge impact in total investment returns. >>7 Relative Strength Stocks to Beat the Market Over the last 36 years, dividend stocks have outperformed the rest of the S&P 500 by 2.5% annually, and they outperformed nonpayers by nearly 8% every year, all while paying out cash to their shareholders, according to data compiled by Ned Davis Research. The numbers are even more compelling when looking at companies that consistently increase their payouts. That's why we pay close attention to the firms that are shoveling more corporate cash to shareholders each week. With that, here's a look at seven of the stocks that hiked payouts in the last week.