I have once heard it said that Hotei is the flowering of the Buddha, he is always depicted as such a jolly fellow. It is the combination of spirituality and laughter that appeals to me, the idea that being spiritual can also be joyful. Very little is actually said about it, but the statue speaks to people, and to me, which is probably why is it so popular.
Have you ever heard of laughter yoga? Groups of people get together to laugh, for a prolonged session. Going through the motions soon turns into real laughter, without comedy or joke telling. There is often much eye contact and playfulness between participants. It shakes up the energy, and has many benefits.